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Stop bathing your teeth in sugar

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By Barbara Quinn
The Monterey County Herald
Back in the day, I remember my mom marvel at the fact that my grandmother -- almost 90 at the time -- still had all her own teeth.
Times have changed ... somewhat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every four adults older than 65 has no natural teeth. That makes it a drag to eat corn-on-the-cob on the Fourth of July.
Why is nutrition important for our teeth? Because nutrients maintain strong teeth and strong teeth maintain our ability to get nutrients. Here's the latest on this topic from a recent position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
Bacteria that live in our mouth love sugar. When they feed on "fermentable carbohydrates," they produce acids that destroy the protective mineral coating of tooth enamel. And they produce enzymes that attack proteins in the teeth.
Result: weak, decayed teeth. Yuck.
So what are "fermentable carbs" that pump up mouth bacteria? Beverages sweetened with sugar including pop, fruit drinks, energy drinks and sweet tea.
By the way -- and not that I would be interested -- but that dreamy-looking Venti (20-ounce) Iced Caramel Macchiato espresso drink at our local Starbucks has the potential to bathe my teeth in 9 teaspoons of sugar.
Other fermentable carbs include any sticky sweet foods such as raisins and dried fruit, honey and molasses. And let's not forget the candies, cookies and cakes that we savor while our mouth bacteria destroy our teeth.
Here's the good news: Some foods and food ingredients can actually protect our teeth from decay. Chew on these:
Sugar-free chewing gum: Chewing stimulates saliva that bathes teeth with antibacterial agents that neutralize bad acids in your mouth. And the sweeteners used in sugar-free candies and mints-such as xylitol and mannitol-do not feed mouth bacteria.
Fresh fruits and vegetables: Vitamin C in these foods is used to make collagen -- a vital protein for healthy gums -- the better to support your teeth. And chewing these fibrous foods keep gums healthy and produces protective saliva.
Protein foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, fish, beans and legumes strengthen teeth and gums. Proteins also arm saliva with its antibacterial properties.
Whole-grain, low-sugar breads and cereals provide a host of nutrients that enhance our immune response to fight off pesky bacteria.
And excuse me for bringing up a controversial nutrition topic, but good evidence has shown that dental cavities can be prevented when teeth are exposed to fluoride in water, food or toothpaste.
So here's the formula to grow up with all your teeth like my grandmother: Chew, chew, chew your food to stimulate saliva. Don't let sugar hang out too often with the bacteria in your mouth. And yes dear, you must brush your teeth after you eat ... with a fluoride-containing toothpaste.
If you can't brush right away, chew a piece of sugar-free gum.
That oughta keep those teeth in their place.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at
Story tags » Preventative medicineNutrition

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