You’ve heard it a thousand times: “prevention is the best form of medicine.” Well, as boring and mundane as it might sound, it’s absolutely true. I know because I see the consequences of a lack of care and foresight all the time — it can rear its ugly head as a big, fat dental bill.
So yes, prevention is a big deal.
I don’t want to bore you with how to better brush your teeth, what kind of mouthwash to use, or how often you should visit your dentist for hygiene check-ups (it’s twice a year, by the way). Instead, I want to talk about something exciting.
Certain foods are better than others for your teeth, and some of these are pretty awesome and tasty. I love food, and I know most other people with a soul do too, so I wanted to talk about these delicious options that we have out our disposal to both gorge ourselves — in a totally good way — and protect our teeth.
I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
Let’s get started before I get sidetracked in the kitchen.
Cavity Wars: On What Side is Your Diet On?
For a long time, scientists believed that cavities were exclusively a problem of agricultural societies. We’d find remains of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors and find them to be surprisingly dentally clean (not sure if “dentally” is a word, but I’m a dentist and I proclaim it to be so [!!!]). This conventional wisdom has been overturned to some extent, but it’s still true that changes in diets over time has played a big role in our dental health on a societal level.
We know this because there are societies out there, like the Maori in New Zealand and isolated villages in the tallest civilized reaches of the Swiss Alps, that only started to suffer from systematic dental infections after carb-heavy agricultural staples and processed foods were introduced into their diet.
“But I like carbs!” So do I. Trust me, so do I. Still, we should just be aware of how they are also the food that the bacteria which cause tooth decay and gum disease eat to fuel their process.
The point is, everything must be eaten in moderation — another common saying you might be sick of hearing, but which is still true.
Anyways, we all like carbs (mmm pasta), so let’s talk positive: what food is good for my teeth?
A long, long time ago, a scientist by the name of Dr. Weston Price traveled around the world to visit different cultures and conduct what amounted to a dental anthropological study. He found a number of isolated peoples that didn’t suffer from the typical oral malaise that afflicts most of industrialized society and he figured that it was something in their saliva that made all the difference. He didn’t know exactly what it was, so he called it “Activator X.”
Silly scientists, making names up, sort of like the word “dentally.”
Fast forward a decade or two and a study comes out in the Journal of Dental Research showing that there is indeed something in our saliva that prevents the formation of plaque and acid buildup: vitamin K.
“Great,” you’re saying to yourself. “What the heck has vitamin K in it?”
That’s a good question and I can answer it for you.
- Chicken — this is a good start, I love chicken. And who doesn’t (except vegans, understandably).
- Egg yolks — also on my ‘food I love’ list.
- Green leafy vegetables — this is stuff like lettuce, spinach, kale, et cetera. Plus, spinach makes you super strong, if you follow Popeye at all.
- Broccoli — hey, don’t knock it! If there’s a vegetable I prefer, it’s good ‘ol brocc.
- Cucumbers — don’t think of it as a vegetable; in fact, technically, it has seeds (here we go again, the fruit v. vegetable debate).
- Asparagus — drizzled with a little bit of olive oil, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and some seasoning, baked asparagus is a delicacy, nay, it’s a heavenly elixir. For all you doubters, I stand by my words.
- Tuna — we’re getting on the lower-end of the vitamin K spectrum with tuna, but hey, tuna is pretty great so it deserves a shoutout.
A lot of the vitamin K-rich foods you’ll find will be vegetables. Don’t give me that face. Vegetables aren’t that bad.
In fact, cooked right, with the right flavors and seasoning, they can be absolutely and undoubtedly delightful, so much so that you’ll rush back to get seconds. And you don’t have to totally change your diet. Just add some of these foods to your dish and you’ll be at least be taking better care of your teeth — and the rest of your body; all of the things listed above are good for your overall health — than you would be otherwise.
Progress is what matters, after all.
I’d Like to Whiten My Teeth While Eating Something Delicious
“Wouldn’t we all, Del,” you’re saying, the sarcasm heavy in your mind.
Good news, you can.
There are, of course, things that stain your teeth. We know that red wine, black coffee, soda, dark berries, and a perpetually long list of other foods and drinks can all yellow your teeth — and we know the consequences can be dramatic.
Again, though, let’s keep this positive. What can you eat that will help whiten your teeth?
- Strawberries — uh, yum! I can eat strawberries all day. Plus, they have Malic acid, which helps to remove discoloration off the surface of your teeth.
- Seeds and nuts — good for you, and also abrasive, they can help scrape your teeth and remove stains. The type of seed and nut does matter, so stick with things like sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, and cashews.
- Onions — It only works when you eat them raw, but believe it or not — and despite the “aroma” (to put it lightly) it can give your breath —, onions are a magnificent way of fighting plaque.
- Apples — Oh for goodness’ sakes! Another softball for me to knock out of the park with an overused refrain. I’ll take it: an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and apparently the dentist too. This is because apples increase saliva production, which helps keep your teeth clean and stain-free.
- Carrots — Not just good for your vision, carrots are also great for cleaning food debris that’s collecting around your teeth and staining them.
- Broccoli — Wow, a double whammy. Not just rich in vitamin K, broccoli is also very good at removing all those scraps of food that may stick around during your meal and after (that stuff you’re supposed to get with your toothbrush, but don’t always do, later on).
- Oranges and pears — They can help neutralize the bacterial acid that causes tooth decay and they’re both also amazingly No, really; oranges and pears are like my top two fruits of all time.
That list wasn’t so bad, was it?
Most of the things I mentioned are food we eat all the time. Maybe we don’t eat them consistently, but if they’re on our plate we’ll probably gulp them down. So what’s the problem with eating them a little bit more consistently?
Again, you don’t need to turn your diet on its head. It’s just about making little changes here and there to make that small difference that will ultimately lead to a big change down the road.
It’s A Lot Like an Asteroid
“First, post-apocalyptic dental care (‘great article by the way, Dr. Kovacevik’ is what you should be thinking). Now you’re comparing dental health to an asteroid. What’s next?”
Let me explain.
An asteroid is headed towards Earth. On its current trajectory, it will hit us and it will destroy us. Oh no! Luckily, it’s still several hundred thousand kilometers out and we have time to think of a solution. Phew!
How the heck do we move an asteroid?
Luckily, at that distance, we don’t have to move it very far. Right? Right. Because it’s so far away, if we nudge it two millimeters it’ll end up missing the Earth entirely, because a two millimeter shift over several hundred thousand kilometers is actually a huge distance. If it moves two millimeters to the right every tenth of a kilometer and it travels a total of two hundred thousand kilometers, that’s … like a lot of millimeters. 4 million millimeters, to be exact. That’s four kilometers — and that could be just enough to save the Earth (I’m no astrophysicist).
Much like how a two-millimeter shift may save the Earth, it could also be the difference between needing your teeth replaced as you age or having a full set of beautiful teeth for the rest of your life.