Are there really optimal types of food for healthy teeth and gums? Yes! In fact, evidence-based research on how nutrition impacts oral health is as extensive as it is varied. Essentially, many facets of research — epidemiological studies, case-controlled studies, and clinical trials show that a healthy diet promotes healthier teeth and gums. 

At Penn Dental Medicine, we are dedicated to ensuring that our patients understand the impact that diet and nutrition can have on their oral health. Our onsite registered dietician works closely with patients and student dentists to optimize and personalize diet plans designed to achieve optimal dental health outcomes.

It’s important to note that adjusting your diet to help promote healthy teeth and gums doesn’t necessarily mean an instant overhaul. Sometimes, slight alterations in the way you eat can go a long way in helping improve oral health. By taking simple, small steps, you can be on your way to optimal oral hygiene and overall health.

Food for Healthy Teeth and Gums: The Basics

“Generally, the same foods and drinks that promote the desired best overall health outcomes for all systems of the body are what we advise for best dental health practices,” says Matthew Whipple, a registered dietician at Penn Dental Medicine. “If we think about the things we learned in school, it’s best to focus on eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as getting good sources of lean protein, while limiting excessive added fats, salt, and sugar.”

To help get a more specific idea about what kinds of foods in each category are best for your oral health, Whipple suggests the following vitamin-rich options:

  • Vitamin D
    A dietician goes over nutrition facts with a blonde-haired female client, with a bowl of fruits and vegetables in the foreground. Since inadequate Vitamin D intake increases the risk of dental caries and bone loss, it’s important to eat foods containing high concentrations of Vitamin D. This includes fish such as tuna and salmon, cheese, and even mushrooms. However, Whipple cautions against assuming that much of a person’s Vitamin D source comes from milk and yogurt. Unless these foods are fortified, they may not contain the daily Vitamin D your body needs.
  • Calcium
    Dark, leafy green vegetables provide some of the most nutrient-dense calcium sources. This means that spinach, collards, kale, and cabbage are key foods to include in your daily diet. “Consequently, cabbages also have high concentrations of Vitamin C and Vitamin K,” Whipple says, “which can help alleviate bleeding and inflammation often seen in gum disease.” Additional calcium sources come from citrus fruits (limes, oranges, etc.), blueberries, strawberries, figs, and kiwis. 
  • B Vitamins
    Having sufficient vitamin B in your diet may help reduce bleeding and ulcerations in the mouth, according to Whipple. Many Vitamin B sources are found in whole grains (whole wheat pasta, quinoa, and brown rice). Whole grains, as opposed to refined grains, also help maintain healthy oral tissues. 
  • Antioxidants
    “We know that antioxidants from fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of developing oral cancer and increase your immune system to provide a defense against an oral infection,” Whipple explains. Foods rich in antioxidants include artichokes, blueberries, pecans, strawberries, raspberries, legumes, spinach, beets, and kale. 

It’s Not so Much What Not to Eat, but When

While many people are aware of sugary, salty, fatty, and starchy foods as not being the healthiest choices, what may be less understood is how timing meals and snacks impact oral health. 

“When I joined the dental school,” Whipple says, “the big message Penn Dental Medicine teaches both dental students and patients is to not eat or drink consistently throughout the day. And, to make sure you have proper timing between meals so that your oral cavity can restore its natural pH.” 

So while limiting added sugars, salts, and oils from your diet is important, so is being conscious about the length of time between meals. 

“A lot of people will get Starbucks in the morning and grab a 24-ounce coffee or tea and take it to work or class and sip on it all day long,” Whipple says. “If you are going to have those things, make sure you’re drinking it in a reasonable amount of time.”

Why is it important to give your mouth time in between meals and snacks?

Since many of the foods we consume are acidic, it affects the pH level in our mouths. Any foods with a pH value lower than 5.5 can cause erosion of your tooth enamel — many sodas, for example, have a pH of 2.5!

Allowing a significant break between meals allows the mouth to restore a normal pH level. 

Hydrate to Satiate and Promote Saliva Production

Whipple also adamantly recommends drinking water to improve oral health. This is because water offers several benefits when it comes to our teeth and gums. 

“Most of us don’t drink enough water. If you drink three cokes a day, try to replace two cokes for water, and limit yourself to one coke a day,” Whipple says. “Drinking water before or after meals is also wise — drinking before helps you to feel more full, and drinking after rinses the oral cavity.”

Drinking enough water also helps to maintain healthy saliva production, which defends against dry mouth (and the possible byproduct of bad breath).  

“Chewing sugar-free gum and mints also help to refresh the mouth,” Whipple says, “so that your mouth doesn’t remain in a low pH environment.”

Chewing sugarless gum also helps to dislodge any food particles that attempt to stick to the teeth, making you vulnerable to cavity-breeding bacteria. 

Veggies First to Fight Periodontal Disease

Whipple feels that the value of vegetables as part of optimum oral health can’t be understated. “Try to include a serving of vegetables every meal (even breakfast),” he says. “People often think of sweet stuff for breakfast, but if you’re cooking eggs, add some spinach. Or if you’re making a fruit-based smoothie, add some frozen greens.” 

And speaking of breakfast, don’t skip it. 

“Many people skip breakfast, but eating breakfast can help kickstart the mouth in restoring a normal pH, and you’ll feel more full, making it less likely for you to snack on sweets, pastries, or other temptations throughout the day.”

In closing, Whipple cautions against brushing your teeth immediately after eating. While it’s always important to brush and floss (especially twice a day if possible), waiting a while after a meal is best. Many of the foods we eat release acids, which can be abrasive to the tooth enamel. 

Instead, chewing sugar-free gum, drinking water, and even using a Waterpik device can safely and effectively help refresh your mouth and remove any straggler food particles. 

More About Nutrition and Oral Health

For more ideas on how to maximize your nutrition for best oral health outcomes, check out our complimentary eBook “How are Nutrition and Oral Health Connected.”

Penn Dental Medicine offers high-quality, patient-centered dentistry services at affordable rates. As a dental school clinic, our student dentists are supervised by faculty renowned in their field for their knowledge, skills, and expertise. To schedule your appointment, please give us a call at 215-898-8965.

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