For many of us, having a pristine, pearly-white smile with beautifully straight teeth is our top priority when it comes to oral hygiene. However, taking care of your gums is just as critical when it comes to your mouth’s health. Broken fillings, cavities, chipped teeth – tooth problems are typically easy to identify while gum problems can be easy to overlook because they are often painless. When left untreated, these gum issues can cause worse problems down the road.

Americans need to be diligent when it comes to taking care of their teeth and gums. The American Academy of Periodontology says that up to a staggering 30 percent of Americans may be genetically susceptible to gum disease and more than half already suffer from periodontal disease – an inflammatory disease affecting the gum tissue and bone supporting the teeth.

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Practicing proper dental care – brushing your teeth and flossing – is crucial to oral health. However, following the right diet is just as important for keeping your teeth and gums in optimal form. The healthier your teeth and gums are, the lower your risk for tooth decay and gum disease. Maintaining a proper diet requires understanding which foods to avoid and which ones are critical to oral care.

Here are a few dietary things to consider for promoting excellent teeth and gum health:

Avoid Sugary Food and Drinks

No food poses a bigger threat to your teeth and gums than sugar. The worst thing you could possibly do to your teeth is to constantly drink sugary drinks, such as “energy” drinks, soda or sweetened coffees & teas. The high sugar content in these drinks causes constant enamel breakdown. Brushing your teeth after drinking these sugary drinks will neutralize the acids and sugar, but if you consistently drink them throughout the day, the minerals of the teeth will be stripped and leave you with extremely weakened enamel.

Once the enamel is weakened, it becomes subject to cracking and breaking from normal chewing. This allows the bacteria to inhabit those areas and cause cavities. What’s more, some sugary drinks like Mountain Dew actually have a perfect mix of acid and sugar that lets the acid break down enamel while simultaneously feeding the cavity-causing bacteria in your mouth.

Also, refrain from eating sticky things like candy because they can pull out fillings or crowns. The stickiness of the sugar adheres to the tooth and it’s difficult to completely scrub off with a toothbrush. And if you don’t like to floss, those sugary snacks will be stuck in your teeth for days until your saliva breaks it down or other foods dislodge it.

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Stay Away from Salt and Grease

As if keeping sugar out of your diet isn’t bad enough, salty and greasy foods can also be harmful to your dental health. Gums are living tissue and, just as salt causes inflammation throughout the rest of your body, eating high doses of salty foods will cause your gums to become inflamed as well. This inflammation swells the gums and can cause them to start bleeding. If the gums are not properly cleaned on a regular basis, the inflammation will become a chronic issue and over time you will experience bone loss around the teeth and develop periodontal disease – the leading cause of tooth loss in the United States.

Limit Crunch-Time

It’s not just the contents of your diet that can harm your teeth and gums. The texture of your food can also pose just as great a threat to your oral health. An extremely crunchy diet consisting of foods such as hard nuts, popcorn kernels and ice can actually age your teeth prematurely. Biting on crunchy things all day will cause dentition and ultimately wear down and shorten your teeth. Tough, crunchy foods are also more likely to cause your teeth to chip and crack, which will require you to have crowns installed, root canals, or tooth loss altogether.

Find the Right Vitamins and Minerals

Despite what you’ve read so far, not all tasty food is detrimental to your oral health. There are plenty of delicious foods that promote the right vitamins and minerals to help strengthen your teeth and gums.

One of the most important minerals for your teeth is calcium. Foods that are high in calcium, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, canned salmon, almonds and dark green leafy vegetables can all help promote strong teeth and bones.

Another critical mineral for oral health is phosphorus. You can incorporate phosphorus into your diet by eating eggs, fish, lean meat, dairy, nuts and beans. All of these foods are phosphorus-rich and also help build strong, healthy teeth.

One of the most important parts of any diet, especially when it comes to oral health, is vitamin C. While vitamin C is important to your body for many reasons, it is a major promoter of gum health. Some of the foods that are high in vitamin C which you should incorporate into your diet include citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, potatoes and spinach.

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It’s Never Too Late to Change

The idea of starting on a healthier diet can be daunting for anyone, especially when we’re constantly surrounded by sugary snacks and greasy, salt-heavy foods. Change doesn’t come overnight, so the important thing is to arm yourself with the knowledge on where to begin. If you make your oral care a priority, in time following a healthy, nutritious diet will be second-nature.

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Dr. Nathan Brooks, DDS, lives out his lifelong dream as the owner of Anderson Dental Care in Cincinnati, Ohio. He leads a welcoming, family-focused clinic that offers comprehensive general and cosmetic dental care. With a Master’s in Biology from Purdue University and a Doctorate of Dental Surgery from Indiana University, he continues to pursue dentistry education to better serve and care for patients.