5 Eating Habits for Perfect Oral Health

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Sure, you know that an overload of sweets is bad for your teeth and a nutrient-packed diet is good for them. But other eating habits can affect your susceptibility to tooth decay too.

“A common misconception is that people think of sugar as only table sugar, also called sucrose,” says Carole Ann Palmer, a professor of public health in community service at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. “But bacteria can feed on any simple sugar -- it could be sucrose, fructose, glucose.” In other words, anything from fruit to bread can cause cavities if you’re not careful. Follow these tips to help prevent tooth decay before it starts.

1. Snack less.
Lately, the idea of eating three meals a day has morphed into constant grazing, which is bad news for your oral health. “Every time you put some sugar in contact with the plaque on your teeth, it only takes 20 seconds for acid to form,” says Palmer. And leaving that acid on your teeth for more than 20 minutes puts you at risk. Try to limit yourself to one snack a day, and eat it all in a short period of time (rather than making a bag of pretzels last all afternoon). If possible, brush your teeth or rinse your mouth out after you’ve finished.

2. Drink, don’t sip.
Snacking often isn’t the only thing that exposes your teeth to sugars for a prolonged period of time: Lingering over coffee, tea or other sweetened beverages also ups your risk of tooth decay. Even sugar-free diet drinks can be problematic since they put your teeth in frequent contact with acids, which can erode enamel. Just as with snacks, finish drinks in a timely manner. If you want something to sip on, stick with water.

3. End your meals with cheese or nuts.
The exception to the snacks-are-bad-for-your-teeth rule? Cheese and nuts. Both have protective qualities when it comes to tooth decay, likely because nutrients in them may help remineralize tooth enamel. Have either one at the end of snacks or meals to neutralize the pH balance in your mouth and help curb cavities.

4. Chew gum with xylitol.
Having a piece of gum can also help prevent cavities since it stimulates saliva, which naturally cleanses the mouth. Types that contain an artificial sweetener called xylitol are most protective. (It has antibacterial qualities.) But believe it or not, chewing gum with sugar is better than nothing. “The small amount of sugar is gone pretty rapidly because you’re stimulating saliva,” says Palmer. “The problem is when you pop another piece of gum the minute the flavor is gone.”

5. Eat sweets with your meal.
If it seems that it would take superhuman willpower to cut out sweets altogether, Palmer recommends eating them with your meal instead of after it. “Since the pH balance in your mouth goes down during mealtimes anyway, consuming sweets then has a less damaging effect than eating them alone,” she says.

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by Robin Hilmantel