Prevention is the best medicine for your smile.
Although fillings, crowns, and professional whitening can make your teeth stronger and brighter, it’s better (and cheaper) to avoid cavities and stains. And you can do so by brushing, flossing, and—last but not least—eating right. And fortunately, even foods like candy are generally harmless in moderation.
“It’s when we excessively use one thing that [it] can become a problem,” Matthew Messina, DDS, clinic director of the Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry, told Health.
As the following guide explains, the food we eat can greatly impact our teeth. Here’s what you should know.
Citrus fruits and juices—a rich source of vitamin C and other nutrients—are good for you in many ways. But not when it comes to your teeth.
Enamel, the hard, outer layer of your teeth, is sensitive to decay and erosion. Grapefruit and lemon juice, in particular, are highly acidic and can erode tooth enamel over time.
Dr. Messina pointed out orange juice is less acidic, and many store-bought varieties are fortified with teeth-friendly calcium and vitamin D. “Fortified OJ is good for you on many levels,” explained Dr. Messina.
So, you can drink it, but brush and floss as recommended.
The stickier the candy, the worse it tends to be for your teeth.
Extra-chewy candies—like taffy, caramels, or Jujyfruits—stick to (and between) teeth for a long time, allowing the bacteria in our mouths to feast leisurely on the deposited sugar.
“Bacteria burns sugar to make acid, which dissolves the protective layer of tooth enamel and causes cavities,” explained Dr. Messina.
Dr. Messina added that chewy, sugary, and acidic—a category that includes many “sour” varieties—candies deliver a “triple whammy of negatives.” They carry their own payload of erosive acid, in addition to that produced by the interaction of sugar and bacteria.
You should also avoid hard candies. They don’t cling to your teeth as readily as chewy candy. Still, they dissolve slowly and saturate your mouth for several minutes at a time, giving bacteria more time to produce harmful acid.
Besides, if you bite down wrong on some hard candies, they can chip your teeth—something no amount of brushing or flossing can repair. They don’t call them jawbreakers for nothing.
Acid (typically provided by vinegar) is essential to the pickling process. It’s what gives pickles their sour, salty taste—and it’s also what makes them a potential hazard to tooth enamel. Studies have explained that regular consumption of vinegar or pickles is a risk factor for tooth erosion.
However, most of us don’t eat pickles that often, and snacking on them every now and then isn’t likely to affect your dental health, said Dr. Messina.
It’s no secret that drinking too many sugary sodas can breed cavities. What’s less well-known is that carbonated sugary drinks appear to harm teeth more than non-carbonated sugary drinks.
Research has found carbonated sodas to be more acidic and corrosive than non-carbonated juice drinks.
If you can’t do without soda, your best bet is to drink it during a meal, rather than sipping it throughout the day. The food will help neutralize the acid.
“The time of exposure to the acid is much shorter,” added Dr. Messina.
Sports drinks and energy drinks may seem like a good alternative to soda if you’re in the mood for something sweet or fizzy. But they won’t do your teeth any favors, either. These beverages are also acidic and potentially even more damaging to teeth.
Studies have suggested that drinking Gatorade results in a high amount of tooth erosion, followed by Powerade. And the sports drink that causes the least tooth erosion is Isotar.
The refined carbohydrates found in saltines and many other crackers convert to sugar in the mouth very quickly, providing fodder for cavity-forming bacteria. Crackers also become mushy when chewed, turning into a paste-like goop that builds up in your molars and lodges between teeth.
If you frequently binge on crackers you may have cause for concern. But according to Dr. Messina, eating them in moderation isn’t likely to cause any long-term problems—as long as you thoroughly brush and floss.
“Good oral hygiene will compensate for almost anything,” added Dr. Messina.
Do you know those stubborn brown stains that accumulate inside a coffee mug? Those give you some idea of how coffee drinking can stain your teeth. Research has found that over time, consuming black coffee or Arabic coffee leads to stains on the teeth.
In addition to being unsightly, teeth with heavy coffee stains tend to be sticky and apt to attract food particles and bacteria, said Dr. Messina.
Tea is often considered a healthier alternative to coffee, especially because many types of tea are marketed to boost health. While some of those claims might be true, tea isn’t great for your teeth. Research has found that drinking tea can create tooth stains and erode teeth.
Sugar-free gum helps clean teeth by stimulating the production of saliva. Saliva is nature’s way of washing away acids produced by the bacteria in your mouth.
It also bathes the teeth in bone-strengthening calcium and phosphate. In addition, many varieties of sugarless gum are sweetened with xylitol, an alcohol that reduces bacteria.
You might want to stick with mint flavors, however. Research has found that the acid used to create certain fruit flavors can damage teeth, though only slightly.
“Anything we taste as sour is more acidic, but we’re getting so much good out of the saliva flow, I could live with that,” said Dr. Messina.
Water, like saliva, helps wash sugars and acid off teeth. It also contains fluoride, a mineral that protects against tooth erosion and is found in toothpaste and some mouthwashes.
Fluoride occurs naturally in water (including some bottled spring water), and most tap water in the United States is fortified with it.
Milk and other dairy products are primary dietary sources of calcium essential for healthy teeth. Calcium is the key ingredient in a mineral, known as hydroxyapatite, that strengthens tooth enamel and bones. Teeth aren’t bones, technically, but they share some of the same properties.
Dairy products—especially cheese—also contain casein, a type of protein. Research has found that caseins play an important role in stabilizing and repairing tooth enamel.
Leafy vegetables and other high-fiber foods promote good digestion and healthy cholesterol levels. They also work wonders for your teeth—mostly because they require a lot of chewing.
Eating a bowl of spinach or beans is like running your teeth through a car wash. All that chewing generates saliva, and the food scrubs your teeth as it’s mashed up into little pieces.
“It’s the Milk-Bone dog biscuit benefit,” said Dr. Messina.
Brushing and flossing your teeth on a twice-daily basis is essential for keeping your chompers clean and healthy. Avoiding citrus fruits, sticky candies, and soda, as well as consuming more high-fiber foods, sugar-free gum, and water, can also help promote good teeth health. If you have any questions or concerns about how to best care for your teeth, reach out to your dentist or healthcare provider,