Best and Worst Foods for Your Teeth

Health Writer
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Think cavities are kid’s stuff? Your risk for tooth decay actually goes up over the years. “As we get older we produce less saliva, which helps to wash away food debris and reduce plaque,” says Julia Hallisy, D.D.S., president of the nonprofit Empowered Patient Coalition. Plus our gums recede, meaning more cavities can occur at the gum line, which are harder to fix. Over time teeth are likely to be weakened by fillings, crowns, root canals, or cracks. Here’s how to protect them.

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Bad for teeth: sweet stuff

Foods that stay in your mouth for a long time, like hard candy, or other sugary treats that you eat often during the day do the most damage. But it’s not the sugar itself that causes cavities. Your mouth is full of bacteria, and some feed on the sugars you eat. That interaction transforms the sugars into acids that can destroy your tooth enamel. To limit sugary stuff, read labels. Find the number of grams per serving, and divide by four. The result is roughly the number of teaspoons of sugar in each serving.

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Good for teeth: fruits and vegetables

The act of biting and chewing vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, like apples, carrots, and celery, produces saliva, which neutralizes the bacteria in your mouth that causes cavities. And they can mechanically clean your teeth, removing plaque and food particles. Bonus: Apples can also freshen your breath.

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Bad for teeth: sticky foods

Thick and sticky foods can wedge in between your teeth and stay in your mouth for a period of time. That makes them more likely to cause decay. This is especially true for sugary, sticky foods like some cereals, cough drops, dried fruit, energy bars, or gummies. Ditto high-carbohydrate fare such as bread and crackers, because your saliva breaks down the starches into sugar. To help avoid problems, floss and brush pronto.

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Good for teeth: milk and cheese

Both low-fat milk and cheese are low in sugar and contain calcium and enzymes that can counteract the bad bacteria in your mouth. Plus a 2013 study found cheese can rapidly lower the pH in your mouth and may adhere to teeth in a way that further protects them from acids.

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Bad for teeth: acidic drinks

“You may drink some acidic things because they’re good for your health, but they can be hard on your teeth,” Hallisy says. If you sip water with lemon or lime slices, for example, or kombucha drinks throughout the day, you create an acidic environment that can lead to weakened enamel and the increased likelihood that you’ll get cavities. To minimize damage, drink them at meal times and rinse with water afterward. Or try adding low-acid fruits and veggies to your water instead, such as cucumber, blueberry, or strawberry slices.

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Good for teeth: H2O

Water naturally rinses your teeth and moisturizes your mouth. If you drink water after eating it helps wash away food particles and neutralizes the acids produced by the bacteria in your mouth.

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Bad for teeth: fizzy drinks

The bubbles in beverages like soft drinks and seltzers (flavored and unflavored) are produced when carbon dioxide is dissolved in a liquid, typically under high pressure. Your mouth converts some of the carbon dioxide into carbonic acid. Those acids can demineralize your tooth enamel, and make your teeth more prone to breaking, chipping, cracking, and tooth decay, especially if you sip bubbly brews frequently during the day.

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Good for teeth: eggs, fish, and lean meat

These foods are good sources of phosphorus, an important mineral that may protect tooth enamel. Vitamin D is another nutrient that can help protect your teeth and allows your body to absorb calcium. It can be found in fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and tuna.

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Bad for teeth: hard foods

If you have a difficult time biting though some foods, don’t. Hard foods can break teeth, especially if they’re weakened by a filling or a crown. “I have seen patients who have broken their teeth biting down on ice or a handful of raw almonds,” Hallisy says. She suggests patients switch to softer versions when possible; for example, try slivered or sliced almonds, which still have high amounts of calcium.

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Good for teeth: leafy greens

Greens like spinach, kale, and chard are high in calcium. They’re also packed with fiber, which means they require some serious chewing. The extra saliva that chomping produces helps neutralizes bacteria.