Strong teeth and gums are important for more than just a dazzling smile. Keep yours in tip-top condition by following our dental and nutrition guide.
Over 95 per cent of people born before 1970 have had dental decay. And one in three children are at risk of tooth decay.
Our teeth and gums are important for our overall health. Not looking after our teeth properly has been linked to serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes and pneumonia. “Most dental disease is preventable,” says Dr Deborah Cole, CEO of Dental Health Services Victoria. So here’s how to care for your teeth, with helpful advice on how food can play a role.
Issue: Tooth decay
What causes it?
Plaque is an invisible film of bacteria that accumulates on your teeth. These bacteria thrive on what you eat to produce acid. The acid can soften and destroy enamel (the hard coating of your teeth) and can cause cavities or holes in your teeth. This disease process is called dental caries. Once you get holes in your teeth, they may need to be treated by fillings or crowns. Severe tooth decay can mean infections, abscesses and loss of teeth.
Diet is key here. Every time you eat or drink something sugary, the bacteria in your mouth produces acids that attack your teeth. Your saliva can neutralise that acid within an hour or so to protect the enamel, but repeated frequent acid attacks will mean that your teeth will get damaged. Try to leave about 1.5 hours between food or drink, so that your saliva has time to do its job. The more frequently you snack, the more you risk tooth decay.
Switching to sugar-free drinks and lollies won’t help as much as you might think. A recent study at the University of Melbourne found many sugar-free drinks are acidic, so they attack tooth enamel. All carbonated drinks contain carbonic acid, a by-product of the carbon dioxide that’s used to make them fizzy. Some flavoured drinks and sweets also contain citric acid (E330) or phosphoric acid (E338). The researchers concluded ‘sugar-free’ labelling doesn’t necessarily mean a product is safe for teeth.
“Even if you avoid sugar, it’s important to understand that diet and sugar-free drinks and lollies can still wreak havoc on your dental health,” warns the study’s leader, Melbourne Laureate Professor Eric Reynolds, CEO of the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre.
Easy fixes to avoid tooth decay
Brush twice a day and brush for a full two minutes. Rushing it means you may skip some parts of your mouth. “Most people don’t clean their teeth methodically,” says Dr Cole, who likens hasty tooth-brushing to mopping the floor and leaving visible dirty patches. Take care to brush all surfaces of the tooth and get right to the back of your mouth. Consider switching to an electric toothbrush. They can reduce the build-up of plaque more quickly. Plus, many have timers, which beep after two minutes of brushing.
Brush properly. “Ask your dentist to show you how to brush properly,” says Dr Cole. Hold the brush at a 45-degree angle to your gum line, and use short, circular and gentle strokes. Don’t forget to brush in-between the teeth — or much of the tooth will be untouched and exposed to bacteria.
Start early. From the time children get teeth, they should be cleaned. Dr Cole recommends a first dental check-up by the age of two years.
Toss shaggy brushes. Replace your toothbrush when it begins to get shaggy — every three months is a general guide.
Get the timing right. Ideally, you shouldn’t brush within an hour of eating or drinking something acidic, as your saliva will still be doing its job of neutralising the acid and you’ll be brushing away the softened enamel on your teeth. So, it’s better to brush your teeth as soon as you get up in the morning, before breakfast. Re-brush when you get to work.
Don’t miss that check-up. “As a guide, go every two years. But everyone is different and, for example, if you’re on medication that dries out your mouth, you’ll need to go more often,” says Dr Cole. So, see your dentist as often as they recommend. Most states and territories offer free or low-cost public dental check-ups if you have a health care card or a Pensioner concession card. If you have health insurance, you may be entitled to free visits at the insurer’s own dental centres.
Keep a check on sugar. “We’re not saying ‘no sugar’, but be mindful of when you have it,” says Dr Cole. “If you choose to have something sweet, have it at mealtimes.” Check labels for hidden sugars — they lurk in bread products, cereals, sauces, flavoured drinks and tinned soups, for example. “Generally, if sugar appears in the first four positions on the ingredients list, then it probably is high in sugar,” says Dr Cole. And when you snack between meals, choose tooth-friendly foods (see Food and drink your teeth will love, below).
Chew sugar-free gum. Chewing sugar-free gum, especially if it has xylitol (such as Recaldent), between meals boosts saliva production which helps neutralise the acid.
How a dental check-up can save your life
There are various health conditions the dentist can detect simply by looking in your mouth.
Gum disease can be a sign of diabetes, and acid erosion can point to gastric problems. Teeth grinding can explain headaches. Importantly, a dentist can spot signs of mouth cancer or pre-cancerous cells early. Always tell your dentist about anything in your mouth that feels unusual – for example, a lump under your tongue, soreness, or an ulcer that doesn’t heal. It may not be serious, but it’s best to get it checked.
Issue: Bad breath
What causes it?
It’s commonly thought that bad breath originates from the digestive system. But in the vast majority of cases, it is due to a change in the environment of the bacteria that live in your mouth and throat.
Key triggers include:
a dry mouth, thick saliva or excess mucus
poor oral hygiene
medications that cause a dry mouth
alcohol or excessive use of alcohol or sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS)-containing oral products
chronic sinusitis and a post-nasal discharge
Certain foods affect the odours of your mouth, such as onions and garlic, but this wears off. Coffee can dry your mouth, which can lead to bad breath.
Easy fixes for bad breath
Stay hydrated. Saliva’s cleaning action helps reduce bacteria. Avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol, as these tend to dry out the mouth. So they may cause bad breath.
Clean your tongue. Use a tongue scraper (or toothbrush) with a little toothpaste smeared on it to gently clean your tongue, going as far back as possible.
The worst food offenders
Fizzy drinks and sports/energy drinks
Energy drinks typically have the most sugar, since that’s where the energy hit comes from. It’s even worse if you’re gulping one during a workout, because your mouth is drier while exercising, and the lack of saliva means little protection against sugar and acid. Stick with plain water.
Smoothies and fruit juices
If you’re drinking juice, stick to a small 150ml glass a day and have it with food, rather than in-between. Surprisingly, some store-bought smoothies contain more sugar than a can of Coke.
In terms of oral health, there’s little difference between snacking on sultanas and chewy sweets. The high sugar content and sticky texture means dried fruit clings to teeth. While high on nutrition, it’s better to eat dried fruit at mealtimes, such as on your breakfast cereal.
Cereal bars and yoghurts
Many low-fat cereal bars and flavoured yoghurts are packed with sugar. Always check the label. When buying yoghurt, opt for an unsweetened one, then sweeten it yourself with fresh fruit.
Food and drink your teeth will love
This natural sugar-free sweetener can actually promote dental health. When broken down, it creates an alkaline environment in the mouth, reducing plaque.
A 2015 UK study hails tea – black and green – as the top drink for dental health, thanks to its natural fluoride content. It also contains polyphenols, which kill bacteria. Four cups of black tea a day can protect teeth. Add a dash of milk for a dose of tooth-friendly calcium.
A dry mouth is the enemy of good oral health and hygiene, so drink water regularly. Drinking plain tap water, which is fluoridated, gives additional protection against tooth decay.
Crunchy vegetable snacks
Veg such as raw carrot and celery sticks massage your gums while you’re eating them, and they also stimulate saliva production.
A small piece of cheese is an ideal way to finish a meal because it neutralises acid in the mouth. Small portions (about 40g) keep a lid on the salt and fat content.
Whole fresh fruit
It is much better for teeth than dried or liquid versions.