It’s no secret that what you eat and drink can affect your oral health – think about enamel-eroding sugars and stain-inducing coffee drinks.
But by focusing all of our attention on what we eat, we forget that how we eat and drink plays just as pivotal a role.
“There are popular methods of eating certain foods that can put excessive pressure on your teeth, despite how healthy they happen to be,” said Dr Cheryline Pezzullo, clinical assistant professor and director for community-based programs at NYU College of Dentistry.
“Over time, these methods can put you on the fast track for weakened tooth enamel, damaged dental restorations and increased risk of dental emergencies.” Yikes.
Fortunately, making even a few small adjustments to your current roster of noshing techniques can help you curb future damage. Read on to find out the foods you’re probably eating in ways that aren’t doing your teeth any favours – plus, how best to counteract their effects.
Foods to eat differently, and how
Citrus fruits, like lemons, oranges and grapefruits, are acidic and can erode tooth enamel. To minimise the effects, turbo-chew and swallow so the fruit doesn’t have time to loiter on your teeth. Pezzullo also recommended rinsing your mouth with water to help neutralise the acidity. And if spa water’s more your speed, drink it with a straw to limit direct contact with the acidity.
Biting into apples with force can cause stress on the teeth and potentially lead to enamel damage or tooth sensitivity. “By cutting an apple into wedges, you can push the fruit directly to the back teeth, which are specifically designed to grind, crush, and tear food,” said Dr. Lauren Becker, a dentist based in New York City.
Corn on the cob
“Eating corn on the cob by biting directly into the kernels can put significant pressure on your front teeth,” Pezzullo said. “This can lead to tooth fractures, chipped teeth, or even dislodging of dental restorations, such as fillings or crowns.” Instead, cut the kernels off the cob and consume them with a fork, or enjoy cooked corn in a different form, like corn salads or soups.
Similar to citrus fruits, pickles are acidic and can contribute to enamel erosion. A few pickles here and there aren’t likely to cause dental damage, said Dr Elizabeth Cranford Robinson, a dentist at Cranford Dental in Rock Hill, South Carolina. But if you happen to be a pickle fiend, consider enjoying them as part of a meal as opposed to solo to minimise acid exposure.
Popcorn hulls can get wedged in your gums and cause inflammation, so do your best to make brushing and flossing a post-popcorn ritual. “As you’re eating, also take care not to crunch on any kernels,” Robinson said. “They aren’t meant to be chewed and can cause a tooth to break.”
Nuts, especially whole ones, have a tough exterior that can pose a risk to teeth — particularly if you bite down forcefully. Even if you don’t end up with a chipped tooth, you might experience micro-cracks that can make it painful to chew, not to mention increase your sensitivity to hot and cold foods.
Pezzullo suggests enjoying nuts in smaller portions (one at a time, chewing slowly and carefully) or switching to slivered nuts to reduce the risk of dental damage.
The firmness of raw veggies, like carrots and broccoli, can require forceful and excessive chewing to break down, which may lead to micro-cracks or chips in teeth that are particularly vulnerable ― say, due to grinding or erosion.
To avoid any additional wear and tear, “consider cutting raw vegetables into smaller pieces or lightly steaming them to make them easier to chew,” Pezzullo said.
Thanks to their crunch factor, tortilla chips tend to morph into tiny shards as you chow down, with these small slivers getting caught between teeth or near gums and causing inflammation.
Pezzullo recommended being mindful of your bite force as you eat tortilla chips. Chew them slowly and thoroughly to protect your gums from getting stabbed, and drink water to make sure any residual chips are removed from your mouth.
Peanut butter is sticky and can adhere to the teeth, increasing your risk of tooth decay. Many brands are also high in added sugar, so if you are to indulge, invest in natural peanut butter in which the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.
If you can’t brush or floss right away, pair peanut butter with apple slices. “High-fibre foods can help clean your teeth and increase salivation, which can neutralise the acids in your mouth,” Robinson said.
Smoothies typically contain high amounts of natural sugars and acids from fruits — plus, their thicker texture can cause each sip to stick around longer on teeth surfaces, encouraging tooth decay. “Seeds or berries can also embed into teeth grooves and under gums, leading to pain and more eventual decay,” Robinson said.
To minimise contact with your teeth, drink smoothies with a straw and rinse your mouth with water when you’re done.
Foods to watch out for immediately after you eat them
Steak or jerky
As you’re eating steak or jerky, small pieces can easily lodge between your teeth and gums. “This can lead to bad breath and eventually decay if the food remains next to the teeth surfaces,” Robinson said. Meanwhile, beef jerky tends to stick to teeth grooves and can cause damage to your enamel if not removed promptly.
After eating a meat-centric meal or snack, make sure to dislodge any meat stuck to the chewing surfaces of your teeth (say, with a toothpick) and get your floss on to remove all particles from the spaces between your gums and teeth.
Get this: whole-grain bread eventually turns to sugar in the mouth just like white bread does – cue bacterial growth and eventual tooth decay. “Be mindful of bread that contains various grains, which can make the bread stick in the grooves of your teeth,” Robinson said.
She added that the best way to remove food from these grooves is with a water flosser, though swishing with water and flossing well can also be effective.
Potatoes are another soft, starchy carb that can stick to your teeth, doubling as a feast for the bacteria in your mouth and increasing your risk of tooth decay, Robinson said. Really, any meals that contain starchy carbs should be accessorised with a glass of water to flush your mouth between bites, followed by a meet-up with your toothbrush and dental floss.
Tomatoes are another acidic offender that can damage your teeth’s enamel. “When combined with starchy pasta, the sauce is more likely to bind to your teeth and settle into the grooves,” Robinson said. To neutralise the acidity and discourage the starch from (literally) sticking around, drink plenty of water with your dish and make sure to brush and floss as soon as you can.
Dried fruits, like raisins or apricots, are sticky and can cling to the grooves of your back teeth something fierce. And the longer they linger, the more time the bacteria in your mouth has to feed on the sugars and produce harmful acids. “This can erode the hard enamel surface of the teeth and eventually lead to cavities,” Robinson said.
Make sure to rinse your mouth with water after consuming dried fruits, followed by a brush-and-floss session as soon as you can to remove any remaining residue.