When one thinks about nutrition, one thinks about the effects the food has on one’s bodies. Are we providing our body the right amount of energy and proper vitamins and minerals to keep all the processes functioning properly? While nutrition is the fuel for our body, it is important that we don’t overlook where the digestion process first begins – in the mouth. Our mouths are the gateway to our bodies and can paint a picture of the status of our insides. Research shows that certain dietary patterns and habits can increase our risk for cavities – including frequency and duration of fermentable carbohydrates. Fermentable carbohydrates include sugar either naturally found in foods like fruits (fructose) and dairy products (lactose) or added into food sources like candies, sugar-sweetened beverages and packaged foods/dressings.
While nutrition and dental professionals agree on a lot of things, one main contraindications is the number of times we recommend one eats in a day. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist recommend small frequent meals to aid in weight loss and control chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, dentist would rather patient’s limit the number of their snacks. When we eat, in particular fermentable carbohydrates, the digestion of sugar begins in the mouth through mastication and an enzyme in the saliva. More complex carbohydrates are broken down into smaller and more individual sugar molecules. Bacteria in our mouth feed on these sugar molecules and produce acid. It is in this acidic environment that the minerals keeping our teeth strong, are leached out, weakening our teeth. In 20-30 minutes the pH in our mouths reach a near neutral pH and our saliva helps remineralize our teeth. The more times a day we spend in this acidic environment the weaker our teeth become – increasing our risk for cavities.
So how to do satisfy both our dentist and dietitian? The best solution would be to snack on low carbohydrate snacks – like yogurt, cheese or a handful of nuts. The next best way to reduce our risk for cavities is by pairing our favorite carbohydrate snacks with a protein or healthy fat source like peanut butter, cheese or avocado. When these types of foods are paired with carbohydrates, they can cause the foods to stick less to our teeth as well as buffer the acidity in the mouth. Protein and healthy fats digest much later in the digestion process, unlike carbohydrates which digest in the mouth. When both of these options are not applicable, the simplest way to help reduce the overall risk for cavities is by drinking water. Water can help get rid of the food that gets stuck in our teeth. Once all food is cleared from our mouth, our saliva can help remineralize our teeth and re-establish our desired pH.
In addition to the amount of times per day we are eating, another main risk factor for our oral health is the duration of our meals and snacks. As stated before, after we eat fermentable carbohydrates the pH in our mouth drops, but becomes normalized after 20-30 minutes. If our snacks or meals last longer than this time frame we can increase our risk for cavities. However, this can be exacerbated if the foods that we eat stick to our teeth and stay in our mouth longer. Foods that are sticky or take a long time to consume – like gummy candies, lollipops, chips/pretzels, or dried fruits – can linger in the mouth long after the snack/meal is complete keeping our mouth in an acidic environment longer increasing our risk for cavities. Avoiding these types of foods would be ideal, but unrealistic. The best way to combat this issue would be to increase water consumption after eating to help loosen the food from our teeth. The most amount of fermentable carbohydrates that we can avoid sticking to our teeth and hanging out in our mouths, the less risk for cavities.
In conclusion, the health of our mouth depends on our genetics, how we brush and floss and the foods we eat. How we eat is as important as the foods in our diet. Taking into consideration how frequently we eat and how long we are eating, we can optimize the health of our mouths. A healthy mouth equals a healthy body!