Proper care of teeth is essential for overall health. Regular brushing and flossing are of course important. And a diet that provides a number of key nutrients is critical as well.
There are several factors that contribute to the health of our teeth. When we eat foods, particularly those that contain starches and sugars, certain bacteria in the mouth, called mutans streptococci, convert these foods into acids. These acids attack tooth enamel, which can lead to tooth decay over time. One way to slow this process is to avoid eating frequently throughout the day. The same goes for drinking liquids other than water. This helps ensure that the teeth are not constantly exposed to decay-promoting acids. Another way to protect the teeth from acids is to consume xylitol. Xylitol is classified as a sugar alcohol, and it actually targets the bacteria responsible for tooth decay (source). Xylitol is now commonly found in toothpastes, mouthwashes, and chewing gum.
Teeth, like bones, constantly lose and gain minerals. The process of adding minerals to the teeth is known as remineralization. Calcium and magnesium are particularly important minerals and are continually being incorporated into teeth during remineralization. Calcium is found in dairy products, canned salmon with bones, broccoli, asparagus, and dark leafy greens. Magnesium is also found in dark leafy greens, as well as in mackerel, avocados, and plain yogurt, to name a few. Not only is it important to consume these minerals, it is also important to ensure that they are properly absorbed. Calcium absorption is aided by Vitamin D. Vitamin D production is triggered by exposure to sunlight. (Be aware, though, that in many parts of the country, it is difficult to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D during the winter months.) It is also available in supplement form and in enriched foods, like milk.
While vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, there is an “anti-nutrient,” called phytic acid (or phytate), that inhibits the absorption of not just calcium, but several other minerals as well, including magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus (source). Phytic acid actually binds these minerals, making them unavailable for use in the human body. This, of course, has implications for both teeth and bones. And it gets worse: a number of very common foods in the American diet are high in phytic acid. It is found in nuts, grains, seeds, and beans. In grains, phytate is found mainly in the bran (or outer part) of the grain. So, ironically, by increasing our whole grain consumption in recent years, we have also increased our phytate consumption (and therefore negatively impacted our ability to absorb key minerals).
When I first came across this information about phytic acid, I was not thrilled to read about it. We don’t eat a ton of grains in our house. I’ve been preparing low gluten meals for several years now, so we’re doing pretty well when it comes to wheat in particular (though phytic acid is found in other grains as well). But we do love nuts, seeds, and beans. So…what was I to do with this new information? My first reaction was that we needed to cut all of these foods if not completely, then significantly from our diet. But then I started to think about it more. One thought occurred to me: Since phytic acid is present in so many foods that are common in the American diet, we would expect to see very high numbers of people with decayed teeth. This does not seem to be the case, so what gives?
I started to wonder if there is more to the story. Turns out there is. There is some evidence that the human body is capable of adjusting to the effects of a high-phytate diet. Studies have shown that people who are given a high whole wheat diet do at first excrete more calcium than they consume. However, after a few weeks, they no longer excrete excess calcium (source). It should be noted, though, that studies have not looked at the effects on other minerals.
Phytic acid can certainly be a threat to health in developing countries that rely mainly on grains and legumes for nutrition. In these parts of the world, phytic acid truly can compromise health because the diet is very limited. Developed countries, however, have access to a much wider variety of foods and can get important minerals, including calcium and magnesium, from foods that also are low in phytic acid (source). These sources include various vegetables and animal products. As I mentioned above, vitamin D also aids in calcium absorption, so adequate levels of this vitamin help ensure that calcium is absorbed.
I think that it is important to be aware of phytic acid and to be mindful not to over consume foods that contain high levels of it. Vegetarians and vegans probably should pay extra attention to it, as they do not get minerals from animal sources. However, after doing some research on the subject, it is my personal belief that it is safe to consume foods with phytate at moderate levels.
If you are concerned about phytate in your diet, there are various methods of processing foods in order to lower phytic acid levels. These include soaking, roasting, and sprouting the foods in question before eating them. This article gives detailed instructions for doing so.
So, to sum up, in addition to regular brushing and flossing, the following habits can all contribute to healthy teeth:
* Avoiding eating and drinking liquids other than water frequently throughout the day
* Using toothpaste, mouthwash, and/or chewing gum with xylitol
* Consuming calcium- and magnesium-rich foods
* Getting adequate levels of vitamin D from the sun, food, and possibly supplements
* Being mindful of phytate in the diet
An Additional Note: I recently did some further research on xylitol and have come to the conclusion that xylitol is probably best used in products that are not swallowed. These include toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum. If you do consume it, it is probably best to do so in very small amounts.
Curcio, Peter. “Dissecting Anti-Nutrients: The Good and Bad of Phytic Acid.” Breaking Muscle. Web. 9 November 2013.
Kelley, Jess. “Xylitol is Something to Smile About.” Natural Grocers. 27 February 2012. Web. 9 November 2013.
Nagel, Ramiel. “Living with Phytic Acid.” The Weston A. Price Foundation. 26 March 2010. Web. 8 November 2013.
What is your dental health routine?
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