Doctor’s orders: Nutrition for a healthy mouth
Dr Helen Voronina, an Australian-based implant dentist, looks at some of the common misconceptions and recent findings around oral health.
We’ve all heard the basics: eating lots of sugary food can cause your teeth to get cavities and many of us also probably think dairy is critical to keeping our teeth in their best shape. Is diet and oral health actually this simple?
The milk myth
From childhood, we are told that the calcium in dairy is essential for growing strong bones and teeth. What is lacking from this message, however, is whether dairy is actually the best source of calcium.
Numerous robust studies have demonstrated that this very important mineral can be easily obtained from a whole food plant-based diet, there is no need to resort to dairy to ensure the health of our teeth. Packed with bovine oestrogens, antibiotics, lipids, protein, growth factors (IGF-I), and sodium, dairy is hardly a healthy source of calcium. Conversely, plant sources of calcium are packaged with fibre, folate, potassium, and other beneficial nutrients.
There is no question that calcium is essential to our oral health: the focus is often on ‘how much’ calcium we consume, but we also need to consider how we provide the best oral environment for the calcium to do its job and help maintain healthy teeth.
After our younger years, once our teeth have erupted through the gum, frequent sugar consumption causes essential minerals like calcium and phosphorus to leech from the enamel. Conversely, a healthy diet, low in simple sugars, will minimise this detrimental mineral dissolution, therefore also minimising the risk of decay.
The whole tooth about sugar
Dental caries, commonly known as tooth decay, is the most prevalent and expensive noncommunicable disease worldwide, consuming 5–10% of healthcare budgets in industrialised countries. Advanced stages of the disease may result in severe pain, hospitalisation, and can be debilitating, resulting in complete loss of teeth, reduced function, nutrition, and deterioration of psychological well-being.
The good news is that it’s a disease that is almost exclusively linked to diet and is preventable through good nutrition.
Is sugar as bad for our teeth as we are told? Yes! Confectionery sugar sources and sugars added to savoury processed foods are a primary cause of caries. When sugar is consumed it interacts with the bacteria within the plaque to produce acid. This acid slowly dissolves the enamel creating cavities in the teeth. Interestingly though, it is the frequency of sugar intake, rather than the overall amount, that causes decay. Snacking on even small amounts of sugar frequently throughout the day is highly problematic for our pearly whites.
As often is the case, prevention is the best strategy and should centre around minimising the frequency of sugar intake:
- Sweets such as lollies, chocolates, biscuits, cakes, and soft drinks should only be consumed occasionally…or, ideally. never.
- Choose whole foods, which do not contain added sugars. When shopping, look at the list of ingredients and avoid those with added sugar. Plant milks, sauces, condiments, and even canned chickpeas can contain added sugar.
- Natural sugars, found in maple syrup, agave nectar, molasses, honey, coconut sugar, dry fruit, juices, and smoothies are also damaging. Avoid as much as possible.
Fresh fruit can also cause decay if consumed frequently throughout the day. Don’t limit the quantity of healthy fresh fruits, but eat it 3–4 times a day at the most, at mealtimes, rather than grazing on it throughout the day.
The facts on fluoride
Fluoride has earned itself a bad reputation amongst the health-conscious circles, vigorously opposed by anti-fluoridationists. Most of the anti-fluoridation arguments have been debunked many decades ago. According to the World Health Organization, water fluoridation is one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. Water fluoridation has been used in many regions in New Zealand for over 60 years.
So how does fluoride aid in preventing cavities? Put simply, fluoride prevents tooth decay by making the enamel more resistant to the action of acids. Although a very useful and well-researched process, too much emphasis is placed on fluoride in prevention of caries when the focus should primarily be on basic good nutrition. Fluoride is merely a band-aid; a well balanced, whole food plant-based diet that is low and infrequent in simple carbohydrates is the ultimate prevention strategy.
The oral microbiome
The gut microbiome has become a hot topic of late…what about our oral microbiome? It represents a very important part of the microorganisms within the human body and includes several hundred to thousands of diverse species. More and more research into our oral microbiome shows that it has a huge impact, not just on our oral health, but our overall health.
For example, recent studies have demonstrated that oral bacteria can form in the gut and lead to chronic intestinal inflammation. Researchers have found significant differences in oral microbiota between healthy individuals and patients with type 2 diabetes, and studies have revealed that oral microbiota is an important factor in the development of diabetes. An imbalance of oral microbiota is also linked with the development of pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, and liver disease.
It is clear that the benefits of maintaining good dental health extend far beyond just our mouth. It has a major impact on overall health, medical costs, and quality of life. Many of the determinants of our oral health are controllable with the right habits, particularly diet; once again, a diet packed with plant-based, whole foods stacks up!
Dr Helen Voronina is a volunteer for Australaisian health promotion charity Doctors For Nutrition. She established her own dental practice in 2008 after working across regional Australia and gaining broad experience in emergency, surgical, and cosmetic dentistry. She promotes a whole-food, plant-based diet for health, ecological, and compassionate reasons. You can find out more about her at www.drhelen.com.au.
Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine
This article was sourced from the Summer 2023 edition of The Vegan Society magazine.
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The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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