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Every time you eat or drink anything sugary, your teeth are under acid attack for up to one hour. This is because the sugar will react with the bacteria in plaque (the sticky coating on your teeth) and produce harmful acids. So it is important to cut down on how often you have sugary foods, which will limit the amount of time your teeth are at risk.
Acidic foods and drinks can be just as harmful to your teeth. The acid wears away the enamel, and will leave the dentine uncovered. This is called ‘dental erosion', and makes your teeth sensitive and less attractive.
A diet that is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fresh fruit and vegetables can help to prevent gum disease. Gum disease can lead to tooth loss and cause bad breath. The diagram below shows you what you should eat as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
Tooth decay damages your teeth and leads to fillings or even extractions. Decay happens when sugar reacts with the bacteria in plaque. This forms the acids that attack the teeth and destroy the enamel. After this happens many times, the tooth enamel may break down forming a hole or ‘cavity' into the dentine. The tooth can then decay more quickly.
All sugars can cause decay. Sugar can come in many forms, for example: sucrose, fructose, maltose and glucose. These sugars can all damage your teeth.
Many processed foods have sugar in them, and the higher up it appears in the list of ingredients, the more sugar there is in the product. Always read the list of ingredients on the labels when you are food shopping.
When you are reading the labels remember that ‘no added sugar' does not necessarily mean that the product is sugar free. It simply means that no extra sugar has been added. These products may contain sugars such as those listed above, or the sugars may be listed as ‘carbohydrates'. Ask your dentist if you aren't sure.
Some foods and drinks are more acidic than others, and some are acidic enough to attack your teeth directly. The acidity of a product is measured by its ‘pH value'.
The pH values of some food and drinks are listed below. The lower the pH number; the more acidic the product. Anything with a pH value lower than 5.5 may cause tooth erosion. ‘Alkalines' have a high pH number and cancel out the acid effects. A pH value of 7 is the middle figure between acid and alkali.
It is better for your teeth and general health if you eat 3 meals a day plus no more than two snacks, instead of having lots of snack attacks. If you do need to snack between meals, choose foods that do not contain sugar. Fruit does contain acids, which can attack your teeth. However, this is only damaging to your teeth if you eat an unusually large amount. Try to limit dried fruit as it is high in sugar and can stick to your teeth.
If you do eat fruit as a snack, try to eat something alkaline such as cheese afterwards. Savoury snacks are better, such as:
The main point to remember is that it is not the amount of sugar you eat or drink, but how often you do it. Sweet foods are allowed, but it is important to keep them to mealtimes.
To help reduce tooth decay, cut down on how often you have sugary foods and drinks and try to choose sugar-free varieties.
Sweets and chewing gum containing Xylitol may help reduce tooth decay.
Sugary foods can also lead to or worsen a range of health problems including heart disease and being overweight.
Still water and milk are good choices. It is better for your teeth if you drink fruit juices just at meal times. If you are drinking them between meals, try diluting them with water and rinsing your mouth with water after drinking. Drinking through a straw can help the drink go to the back of your mouth without touching your teeth.
Diluted sugar-free squashes are the safest alternative to water and milk. If you make squash or cordial, be sure to dilute the drink 1 part cordial to 10 parts water. Some soft drinks contain sweeteners, which are not suitable for young children - ask your dentist or health visitor if you aren't sure.
Fizzy drinks can increase the risk of dental problems. If they contain sugar this can cause decay and the acid in both normal and diet drinks can dissolve the enamel of your teeth. The risk is higher when you have these drinks between meals.
Chewing gum makes your mouth produce more saliva, which helps to cancel out the acid in your mouth after eating or drinking. It has been proven that using sugar-free chewing gum after meals can prevent tooth decay. However, it is important to use only sugar-free gum, as ordinary chewing gum contains sugar and therefore may damage your teeth.
If you need free and impartial dental advice please do not hesitate to contact our Dental Helpline or call 0845 063 1188 (local rate call in the UK).
It is important that you brush your teeth last thing at night and on at least one other occasion with a fluoride toothpaste. The best times are before breakfast and last thing at night before you go to bed.
Eating and drinking naturally weakens the enamel on your teeth, and brushing straight afterwards can cause tiny particles of enamel to be brushed away. It is best not to brush your teeth until at least one hour after eating.
It is especially important to brush before bed. This is because the flow of saliva, which is your mouth's own cleaning system, slows down during the night and this leaves your teeth more at risk from decay.
Children up to three years old should use a toothpaste with a fluoride level of at least 1000ppm (parts per million). Three-year-olds to adults should use a toothpaste that contains 1350ppm to 1500ppm of fluoride.