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When it comes to your health, you really are what you eat, and nowhere is that more apparent than your mouth. According to Hadie Rifai, D.D.S., a dentist at the Cleveland Clinic, you have brush, floss and eat the right foods.
To protect your pearly whites, zero in on enemy number one: the acid in your diet. Acidic foods like citrus fruits and soft drinks may be obvious sources, but any time you eat something sugary or starchy -- pretzels, cookies, candy, bread-- the sugars react with bacterial plaque to form enamel-eroding acid. When enamel breaks down, your teeth can become discolored, sensitive and prone to decay -- and that doesn’t look or feel good.
Luckily, there are also foods that help neutralize acids, stimulate saliva and even repair tooth enamel. Here, six ways to eat your way to a healthier smile.
Eat something crunchy
Why? There’s a biological reason why Fido likes to munch on bones and sticks: They help scrape plaque from his teeth. While we don’t recommend chomping on a pile of ham bones or fire wood, there are foods that can scrub away debris. “Hard, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables will help clean the teeth and promote saliva, which is important,” says Karyn Kahn, D.D.S., a dentist at Cleveland Clinic. Yes, saliva serves a purpose: It neutralizes tooth-damaging acids and contains calcium and phosphates that rebuild enamel.
How to fit it in: Munch on carrots, celery, apples, pears or any other raw produce that is crunchy and high in water, advises Dr. Rifai. Just be sure to eat them plain, not doused in sugary dips or spreads.
Have a cup of tea
Why? Whatever your bag, green and black tea can help keep your mouth happy and healthy. Thanks to chemicals known as catechins, green tea may help tamp down inflammation that can lead to gum disease. Both green and black brews also help keep gingivitis-causing bacteria at bay and can even take the stink out of bad breath. Of course, adding sugar to the mix is not the best recipe for pristine teeth or optimal health. We recommend taking yours straight up.
How to fit it in: Drink a cup of green or black tea twice a day. Like coffee and soda, tea can stain the teeth, so have a glass of water after you finish your tea.
Don't skimp on dairy
Why? Research shows that those who regularly dine on dairy have a lower risk of gum disease. Include low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt in your diet to spend less time in the dentist’s chair. Dairy products help reduce levels of enamel-eroding acid in the mouth. They’re also a major source of calcium and phosphorus. “Calcium is very important, because 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is deposited in bones and in our teeth,” explains Kahn. Phosphorus, meanwhile, works closely with calcium to fortify teeth and bones.
How to fit it in: You might say that Camembert is the “big cheese” when it comes to eradicating acid. Because cheese is high in saturated fat, don't overdo it. Treat yourself to a one-inch cube (about half an ounce) after your meal to neutralize acid on your teeth and protect them from damage.
Keep drinking water
Why? Every time you eat, the acidity level in your mouth goes up. If food stays on your teeth because you don’t rinse or brush, it can lead to gingivitis, explains Rifai. “By drinking water throughout the day, you neutralize those acids,” says Kahn. People with dry mouth have to be especially vigilant about staying hydrated, because they don’t have enough saliva to bathe the teeth. A steady stream of water helps keep food from hardening on those pearly whites and it can combat bad breath as well.
How to fit it in: Rinse your mouth with water after eating (or drinking something other than water), and sip water throughout the day.
Add fish to your diet
Why? Chew on this: Research in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that the omega-3 fish oils DHA and EPA can reduce the risk of periodontitis -- advanced gum disease that damages not only the gums but the bones that support the teeth. Unless you’re a jack-o’-lantern, a toothless grin is probably not the look you’re going for. Besides being rich in heart-healthy fats, cold-water fish like wild salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna are valuable sources of hard-to-come-by vitamin D, which can slash the risk of tooth decay by 50 percent.
How to fit it in: Get hooked on canned salmon. One serving of canned salmon with bones (don’t worry -- they’re small and edible) provides 30 percent of your daily calcium needs, more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin D requirements and four times the omega-3s of canned tuna. Not into salmon? Aim for two to three servings of other fatty fish per week.
Chew gum with xylitol
Why? A natural low-calorie sweetener found in corn, berries and birch trees, xylitol stimulates mineral-rich saliva to help repair tooth enamel and decrease the risk of cavities. When harmful plaque bacteria absorb xylitol, they cannot multiply, produce acids or stick to teeth -- thus rendering them powerless.
How to fit it in: Chew specially formulated gum that contains a high dose of xylitol for short periods of time after eating. But don't chew for too long. “Chewing gum can damage and overstress the muscles in the temporomandibular joints,” says Kahn. She recommends using it for just five minutes after every meal.
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