Brush, floss, mouthwash, and go to the dentist.
That’s what we’re often told is the “key” to oral health. If you want fewer cavities, just follow that prescription… Right?
Sadly, modern dentistry has invented many ways to work around a problem that makes cavities the #1 preventable chronic disease in the world.
But they haven’t fixed the problem: Your diet.
Ancient vs. Modern Diets
Thousands of years ago, people of the Paleolithic area hunted and foraged for food. Our bodies evolved for the greater part of human history to match these dietary patterns.
What did an ancient diet look like?
- Meat (including most parts of an animal)
- Fish and seafood
- Fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils/butters (in certain civilizations)
You may be thinking, “Sure, but didn’t ancient people have terrible teeth?”
In truth, ancient peoples had dramatically better dental health than much of the developed world has today!
Dentist Weston A. Price was famous for his discoveries in the 1930s that reflected the truth of ancient diets producing healthy teeth.
Peoples of native tribes he visited had straight, disease-free teeth — and diets very different from the modern fare of the day.
However, after just one generation of being introduced to a starchy, bread-laden, processed diet, children in these cultures sported striking orthodontic problems and a massive increase in cavities.
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What’s missing in a modern diet?
It wasn’t just the sugar, bread, and processed food that differed between these diets. Price also noted that the native cultures mostly all consumed a nutrient he identified as “Activator X”. Experts often assume this was the first discovery of what would later be known as vitamin K2.
Vitamin K2 is a nutrient vital to the synergistic movement of calcium throughout the body to strengthen teeth (and bones). Without this process — which also requires vitamins A and D — teeth are far more likely to develop decay.
Another theory as to why modern diets seem to cause an increase in cavities is that the textures people eat are not varied like they once were.
A diet rich in leafy greens, animal meats, butters, and seeds offers many textures for mastication (chewing), which is great for cleaning teeth and keeping them free of plaque.
The Role of Saliva
You can’t discuss healthy teeth without discussing spit. Saliva, the extracellular fluid that delivers nutrients to your teeth and serves as your baseline of protection from harmful bacteria, must be in good shape to prevent cavities.
Brushing teeth does very little to help saliva quality. Your diet, on the other hand, is one of only a few major factors that impacts saliva production and quality.
Nutrient-dense foods, low in empty calories, processed sugars, acidic ingredients, and artificial sugars, help promote healthy saliva that can protect teeth throughout the day.
Why is brushing important for dental health?
You may be wondering, at this point, if I recommend brushing your teeth at all. The answer is YES, you should be brushing your teeth at least twice each day!
Brushing teeth impacts dental health by disorganizing bacteria on the surface of teeth. This means it is less likely to congregate over time and create “acid attacks” that eat away at tooth structure and lead to tooth decay.
If you use a toothpaste with hydroxyapatite (HAp) or fluoride as the active ingredient, you reap additional benefits. These compounds further protect tooth structure from decay.
But even a great brushing routine takes up just a few minutes of each day. The food you eat, though, affects your dental health 24/7/365.
The Bottom Line
Ideally, good oral hygiene and a tooth-friendly diet go hand in hand. Brushing your teeth can fill in some “gaps” created by a less-than-great diet, but brushing can’t undo all the damage of an unhealthy diet.
So, what’s the bottom line? Brush your teeth twice each day, but focus most on feeding your body (and teeth) what they need to stay strong.
- Helöe, L. A., & Haugejorden, O. (1981). “The rise and fall” of dental caries: some global aspects of dental caries epidemiology. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 9(6), 294-299. Abstract: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0528.1981.tb00350.x
- Elzea, C. F. (1939). Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects. Full text: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/eb03/439a9543410a8a45d24d3b82de7e6b9e3d67.pdf
- Koshihara, Y., & Hoshi, K. (1997). Vitamin K2 enhances osteocalcin accumulation in the extracellular matrix of human osteoblasts in vitro. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 12(3), 431-438. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9076586/