For years, we’ve been told to brush and floss. Why? To prevent a cavity of course! But cavities are actually a nutrition problem first and a hygiene problem second. Scraping away with a toothbrush and floss, while eating a cavity-promoting diet is like leaving the sink on full blast while frantically trying to mop up the floor—it just isn’t the right way to handle the problem.
If you are struggling with constant cavities, the answer may lie in your diet. In this post, you’ll learn about your teeth’s natural abilities to resist cavities, and why what you eat is the greatest deciding factor as to whether you get cavities (not oral hygiene).
How Teeth Protect Themselves from Cavities
Most people think of teeth as a hard structure, but you should think of a tooth like a sponge—things can go in and out. A tooth can gain minerals and it can lose minerals—think of those minerals as traveling in and out of that sponge.
As long as teeth gain minerals (remineralize) faster than they lose minerals (demineralize), they fight off decay and stay healthy. When teeth demineralize faster than they can remineralize, you get tooth decay. There are foods that promote demineralization (decay) and there are foods that promote remineralization (protecting against decay).
When you floss and brush, you’re not actively helping the tooth remineralize. Oral hygiene helps disorganize plaque and tartar (and prevent it from building up). This is why diet trumps hygiene when it comes to the formation of a cavity.
Why Your Diet Is More Important than a Toothbrush and Floss
Take cheese, for example. Cheese is rich in vitamins and minerals which nourish a tooth both from inside and outside the tooth. When you chew on a piece of cheese, minerals are made available to teeth so they can remineralize themselves. The vitamins in cheese nourish teeth from the inside, making them better at remineralization. Our modern diet of processed and high glycemic index foods provide a double whammy to teeth—increasing demineralization while also hurting a tooth’s ability to remineralize.
Foods That Promote Demineralization:
- Saltine and Ritz crackers
- Oatmeal and cereals (high in phytic acid)
- Processed foods
- Sugary yogurt
- Sugary drinks
- All high glycemic index foods
Foods That Promote Remineralization:
- Raw and grass-fed cheese and butter
- Grass-fed meats and poultry
- Dark, leafy greens like swiss chard and spinach
- Wild-caught fish
- Green and white tea
As a dentist, I scrape away plaque and tartar, only for it to come right back. But if I educate my patients about what foods to eat, we help attack the root cause of the issue by preventing the buildup of that plaque in the first place. The right foods nourish a tooth so that they are better at remineralization and also provide teeth the minerals that they’ve lost and must regain through remineralization.
Certain diets promote more plaque on teeth than others—and it’s much more complex than just sugary foods. Certain foods promote the wrong bacteria in the mouth. This is when the remineralization process is overwhelmed.
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Why Kids Get Cavities More Than Adults
Have you ever wondered why kids get more cavities than adults? When you’re an adult, your body isn’t growing and laying down bone for growth, like it is in children. The resources for remineralization in a child are just not as available because their bodies are busy growing.
What’s Missing from Our Modern Diet
Vitamin K2, which is present in a lot of the foods that we tossed out during the low-fat craze of the 1990s: salami, liver, butter, full-fat dairy, egg yolks, beef, and cheese. Also, now that we eat factory farmed meat, animals are eating corn instead of grass—and this has drastically reduced the amount of Vitamin K2 in our food.
Vitamin D, which has been shown in studies to prevent tooth decay by increasing remineralization. I see more cavities in my patients during January, February, March, and April, which is when Vitamin D levels are lowest thanks to the weather, which is why I recommend a daily Vitamin D supplement. Here’s the key thing to know—Vitamin D will make your teeth better at remineralization, but only in the presence of Vitamins K2 and A. Foods rich in Vitamin D include fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon as well as beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.
Magnesium, which has a balancing effect on calcium metabolism and may prevent calcium plaque in the arteries. To reap the full benefits of vitamin D, and by extension vitamins K2 and A, you need magnesium.
Frequency vs. Quantity
What’s worse for your teeth—sipping a coke all day long or gulping it down at lunchtime? Sipping a coke throughout the day long upsets the balance between remineralization and demineralization all day long. But if you drink your coke all at once, the balance is disrupted only for a short time, which teeth can recover from. When you bolster the tooth from the inside with the right nutrition, it’s better able to withstand the occasional acid attack from the outside.
Cavities Affect the Health of the Whole Body
Gum disease and tooth decay are the most prevalent diseases in the world—60% of us have gum disease and over 90% of us have cavities. When did we become okay with this? It’s not normal for a population to be this sick! If we were talking about heart disease or diabetes being this prevalent, we’d call those rates unacceptable. Many of us, including dentists, think of a cavity as a hole in the tooth—the way I see a cavity is that it is the beginning of a systemic infection of the body.
Dr. Mark Burhenne