When you go to the dentist, you might have noticed an elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there, but for a long time, nobody mentioned it. Foods stop dental disease and a diet for dental health should be your first concern for healthier teeth.
For years, dentists have known the link between diet and dental caries. We all know it. Even children know sugar causes tooth decay. We’ve proven it beyond scientific doubt.
Yet we’ve had very little success in preventing dental caries or stopping people from eating sugar. Today, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children. We’re simply eating too much sugar. So how are dentists getting it wrong?
In this article, I’m going to answer that. I’ll explain the 6 BIG things your dentist gets wrong about a diet for dental health. But before I do, let me tell you how I realized my patients needed a diet for healthy teeth.
As a dentist, for a long-time, I was getting it wrong. I knew teeth and eating were related. My patients knew that teeth and eating were related. But they just couldn’t make the changes to their diet for better dental health – and I didn’t know how to help.
I would ask, plead and BEG for them to brush, floss and eat less sugar. Did they listen? No.
For all my nagging, they would still brush poorly, not floss – and eat plenty of sugar.
I became really frustrated. I tried everything: scare tactics, rewards, scolding. Nothing worked. Why wouldn’t they listen to me?
However, I soon realized they were listening. I was just giving them the wrong information.
My standard dietary advice was to reduce sugar, acidic drinks and maybe a few other bits and pieces. It wasn’t helping them.
My mistake was my advice was only part of the picture. I didn’t know what diet to recommend for oral health. I just knew how to warn people away from their favorite treats.
That inspired me to do the research that finally led to The Dental Diet. It’s a food based program to strengthen teeth and improve dental health.
But let’s get back to the elephant in the room. The 6 BIG Things that dentists get wrong about diet for dental health.
1) The diet and cavities theory is limited
The dietary advice dished out by dentists is based on the sugar and tooth decay link. This known link says: when you eat simple sugars, they feed harmful bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria then release acid that cause tooth decay.
Now, this is true. Dentists aren’t making a mistake when they tell you this. Sugar does feed certain bacteria, causing them to release acid.
This is only part of the story. Sugar itself doesn’t always cause decay. In some people, it will, sometimes. In others, it won’t.
I saw this myself in many of my patients who ate similar amounts of sugar. Some have mouths that resemble disaster zones, while others have not one decayed tooth. And those with sugary diets and no decay made me think. Perhaps there were other dietary factors involved in good oral health?
2) How much sugar is too much?
Sure, if you remove sugar out of the diet, then dental caries won’t happen. But is this an effective dietary strategy?
How much sugar is too much? Are certain types of sugars worse than others? What about the natural sugar found in fruit?
I realized that by telling my patients to reduce their dietary sugar, I was being too general. Sugar is a big problem in that impacts our everyday lives.
If you’ve ever tried complete removal of sugar from your diet, it’s hard to achieve. This is mainly because sugar is added to so many foods we eat. Your ‘sweet treat’ may have less sugar than your jar of pasta sauce.
There are ‘conscious’ and ‘hidden’ sugars in people’s diets. When we know the food is sugary but eat it anyway, that’s conscious sugar. Hidden sugar is in foods we don’t think of as ‘sweet’. Often, we eat it and are none the wiser.
And to make it harder, I realized that nearly all my patients were addicted to sugar. And so was I.
So yes, tooth decay was closely linked to sugar. But knowing this wasn’t helping my patients to eat a diet for healthy teeth. Replacing sugar with the right foods for dental health was the real challenge.
3) Sugar is only part of a diet for dental health
Once I began to look closely at sugar in the diet, I realized I had more questions. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Do other simple carbohydrates cause dental caries?
White flour, a part of many patients’ diets, is a simple carbohydrate. And when you add it to the diet, dental caries becomes more likely. So, was that the answer? Cutting out simple carbohydrates? It certainly played a role. But things were still more complicated.
Sugar and white flour tend to be ingredients in processed, ready-packaged foods: sauces, pastries, cakes. The problem with processed foods is they’re often loaded with sugars and other refined products, like vegetable oils.
I began to see a pattern. Sugar was only part of a processed food diet that patients were eating. It seemed the whole packaged, processed food diet was causing dental disease.
4) Are there foods that strengthen teeth?
Now, I could identify the harmful foods that weren’t good for oral health. But I knew very little about foods that strengthen teeth. And what should people eat to replace their processed foods and sugars?
There had to be a more meaningful link between diet and dental health. I needed to prescribe foods for healthy teeth. To design a better diet for oral health. Replace the bad with the good.
But what foods should I tell my patients to add their diet for oral health?
The answer was inside our teeth. When your tooth develops, it’s made from tiny bone making cells called odontoblasts. They come from your bone marrow and make up the osteo-immunity system.
In your bone marrow, they exist like stem cells. But once they are released into the body, they become either bone making cells or immune cells. Your body sends different signals that tell them which to become.
The odontoblasts make the inner layer of your teeth called the dentin. But once your tooth forms, they don’t simply pack up and leave. They sit at the edge of your dentin and act like immune cells. They release defense proteins that fend off unwanted bacterial invaders.
The osteo-immunity system is managed by fat-soluble vitamins. These include Vitamins D, A, and K2. These three nutrients are like conductors of the inner immune system in each of your teeth. Without them, you have no defense. Tooth decay can waltz in and find a comfy chair.
Foods that strengthen teeth provide the fat-soluble vitamins that give you strong, healthy teeth. These were the foods that my patients needed to replace sugars and other processed foods. They were the strongest connection between healthy teeth and eating.
5) Not all bacteria are bad: Microbes and healthy teeth.
The connection between bacteria, a sugary diet, and dental caries put too much focus on two approaches. The first is to cut sugar, which we know is flawed. The second is to completely wipe out bacteria in the mouth.
The sugar and tooth decay link naturally labeled bacteria as the decay villains. As a result, dentists are programmed to tell patients to brush, floss and kill as many bugs as they can!
The idea that tooth decay is an infection of bad bacteria provided a warped view of our oral flora. We now know thousands of bacteria species live in the mouth. Even the types of bacteria that cause tooth decay (e.g. strep mutans), also live in healthy mouths.
While removing bacteria by brushing and flossing may be helpful, your diet is probably the BIGGEST influence on the bacteria in your mouth. For example, some strains of bacteria (like lacto bacillus species found in yoghurt) are known to stop decay. They prevent strep mutans over growing and destroying the bacterial balance.
Friendly probiotic bacteria play a major role in keeping your teeth healthy. The big mistake that dentists have been making is not recommending a diet rich in oral probiotics. These include foods that feed the oral flora (prebiotic foods).
The oral microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria working in harmony to keep your teeth healthy. A diet for healthy teeth must feed and replenish your probiotic bugs.
6) Which foods heal gum disease and prevent crooked teeth?
Dental cavities are the focus of most dietary advice for oral health. But what about the other problems in the mouth?
Gum disease and crooked teeth are arguably even more common than tooth decay. Yet there is very little dietary advice on preventing these diseases.
I made the same mistake of more or less ignoring the lifestyle and diet factors that cause these conditions. But again, research showed me that diet is important to prevent these too.
Gum disease is a problem where the bleeding, inflamed gums basically shed away from your tooth. As the disease progresses, the ligament and bones crumble away and teeth become loose.
This chronic problem is caused by an imbalance between microbes, the immune system, and mineral balance. You’ll notice that we’ve discussed each of these points in the previous sections.
When you eat a diet with oral probiotics and mineral balancing nutrients, gum disease shouldn’t happen. And that goes for crooked teeth too. Jaw growth is a hungry and nutrient-dependent process. Without the right foods, your jaw doesn’t get enough of the fuel it needs to grow.
It also needs the right messages to grow. If you eat processed, mushed up food, you don’t chew and your jaw doesn’t grow like it should.
It seems blindingly obvious now, doesn’t it? Suddenly we see that a diet for oral health is about much more than cutting out sugar. A diet for good dental and oral health is about eating foods that strengthen teeth and promote healthy bacterial balance in our mouths.
Even better, as you can learn by signing up to my newsletter, a diet for good oral health is a diet for great overall health.
It’s a win-win!
Now we want to hear from you. Please leave your questions in the comments below.
Want to know more? Dr Steven Lin’s book, The Dental Diet, is available to order today. An exploration of ancestral medicine, the human microbiome and epigenetics it’s a complete guide to the mouth-body connection. Take the journey and the 40-day delicious food program for life-changing oral and whole health.
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