Call them dental caries, cavities, or tooth decay – whichever term you choose, they all refer to the same thing – the destruction of tooth enamel. And if not taken care of promptly, the loss of a tooth and nasty gum disease could be in your future.
How do cavities start? Cavities occur when simple sugars remain on the teeth over time and promote the growth of destructive mouth bacteria that erodes tooth enamel. And cavities aren’t just for kids. Aging predisposes adults to cavities because of receding gums. This puts adults at risk for tooth plaque, especially those who are over 50 and are prone to tooth-root decay. Additionally, the dental fillings get old, too! Fillings you first had in your younger years can weaken, fracture and leak around the edges as you age. Bacteria can take advantage of these crevices and wham – you’ve got tooth decay!
According to the American Dental Association, the good news is tooth decay may be prevented by following these four simple rules:
- Brush twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste
- Floss daily
- Have regular professional cleanings and oral examinations.
- Eat nutritious food and limit sugary snacks
Though sugary foods can contribute to tooth decay, I’ve found a handful of foods that might help keep your teeth from knowing the drill.
Apples: An apple a day may help keep the dentist’s drill away. Crunching apples helps saliva clean the teeth and the flavonoids in apples inhibit bacterial growth in the mouth, shown by experimental studies in animals and intervention studies.
Cheese: Eating cheese helps improve oral health by preventing loss of minerals in teeth and the protein found in cheese also helps counteract the acids that cause tooth decay. Cheese contains casein, a type of protein that helps with calcium re-mineralization of enamel on the teeth. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of cheese, either. As little as 5 grams of cheese can be effective in reducing tooth decay. One of the earliest studies on cavity prevention from cheese was when scientists fed Emmental cheese on bread to rats and found decreased prevalence of tooth decay.
Cocoa: What do tea, coffee and cocoa all have in common? Polyphenols! Yes, these unique plant nutrients play a role in the prevention of cavities because of their ability to fight bacteria. Cocoa polyphenols reduce the formation of acid from Streptococcus and S. sanguinis bacteria – the bad boy bacteria that produce caustic acid that poke holes in your teeth. Now to be clear, we’re talking cocoa powder NOT a sugary chocolate bar here . Cacao bean extract was given to rats that were infected with streptococci bacteria. Those rats that drank the cocoa extract had a significantly reduced rate of growth of streptococci bacteria in the mouth and far fewer cavities.
Cranberries: Flavonoids are known for their antimicrobial effects and likely tooth decay-preventing properties. Cranberries, and many other berries, are rich in these compounds and organic acids. The flavonoids in cranberries and blueberries inhibit bacteria from sticking to surfaces which is the same mechanism that prevents e.coli bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall, causing urinary tract infections. A study showed that cranberries decreased cavity promoting bacteria found in saliva.
Peanuts: Although both peanuts and peanut butter contain the same fiber, scientists think eating foods that require more chewing is what decreases plaque build-up. Peanuts are one of the least cariogenic (cavity causing) foods you can eat!
Tea (Black): Drink tea without adding sweeteners, since sugars are known to increase risk of tooth decay. Flavanols, such as epigallocatechin, are abundant in tea and have been shown to diminish the growth of harmful bacteria. Additionally, tea leaves contain fluoride, a mineral that supports oral health by helping strengthen the mineral composition of teeth. Make your tea with fluoridated tap water, too! University of Illinois at Chicago researchers found natural chemicals in black tea that inhibit the growth of glucosyltransferase, an enzyme that helps plaque adhere to tooth enamel.
Unsweetened Kefir/Yogurt: Plain kefir or yogurt combined with naturally sweet fresh fruit loaded with fiber acts like a natural toothbrush so sugars don’t stick. Yogurt contains calcium and phosphorus which are two minerals needed to remineralize teeth. Often, these two minerals are removed by the acids in the mouth. Kefir is also naturally rich in protein and a good source of magnesium, riboflavin, folate and B12. A study of 2,058 three-year olds showed that consuming fermented dairy products was associated with having fewer cavities. Adults who drank yogurt, fermented milk and fermented dairy beverages showed that pH levels were less acidic and below the critical level for enamel and corrosion to occur.