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Do Vegans Get More Cavities?

By looking in your mouth your dentist may find out more about you than you realize.

A diet high in saturated fat, which can clog our arteries and to inflammation, is also considered a key underlying causal factor for periodontal diseases like gingivitis. So what is a safe intake for cholesterol and saturated fat? See my video Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero. Watch the above video for the list of the top sources of saturated fat intake (two of the leading contributors are cheese and chicken).

Chronic gum disease is also associated with sexual dysfunction. We know impotence can be reversed with a more plant-based diet; what about periodontal disease? A new study found that higher intake of high-fiber foods, especially fruits, may at least slow periodontal disease progression. A healthy diet may also protect the sexual function of women.

For oral cancer it’s a no-brainer. According to the latest review in the journal of the American Dental Association highlighted in the above video, “Evidence supports a recommendation of a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a whole-foods, plant-based diet.”

The foods found most protective include raw and green/leafy vegetables, tomatoes, citrus, and carrots. Citrus fruits are acidic, though. Fine, less oral cancer, but what about the health of the teeth themselves? Might eating lots of sour fruit erode our enamel?

Early case reports that raised red flags involved unusual circumstances like sucking on lemon wedges—not a good thing for your teeth. See my video Plant-Based Diets: Dental Health for pictures of what happens when you give your preschool child a banana to suck on as a pacifier or juice 18 oranges a day for over a decade.

The conventional wisdom has been that fruit juice may be bad for our teeth, but whole fruit is fine. This was challenged recently. The ability of fruits and their juices to erode enamel appears to be similar. For the chart that compares grapes to grape juice, carrots to carrot juice, oranges to orange juice, apples to apple juice, and tomatoes to tomato juice, click here.

Now fruits and fruit juices weren’t as bad as soda—diet coke takes the title for softening teeth the quickest. But it was a surprise that fruits and their juices had comparable effects. The Dental Association put an interesting spin on it: if eating fruits and vegetables whole has the same demineralizing effect as juice, they argued, then hey, maybe fruit juice is not so bad at all. Of course the glass half empty interpretation of fruit being as erosive as juice may be that fruit is worse than we thought.

Indeed, the latest research on whether the consumption of fruit is cavity-causing found that the frequency of fruit consumption was associated with higher odds of cavities, though they acknowledge that the role of fruit sugars in initiating dental cavities in humans has long been a subject of debate.

Those eating plant-based diets may have less disease of the tissues surrounding the teeth, but if people who eat a lot of fruit get more cavities, then what about the health of the teeth themselves? Though vegetarians and vegans don’t have more cavities than those eating more conventional diets, they may have greater signs of acid erosion on their teeth (as documented in two studies I run through in my dental health video). So what should people do?

There are a number of foods and drinks that have the potential to cause dental erosion, both unhealthy foods like soda and sour candy, as well as healthy foods like fresh fruit and certain herbal teas. In the biggest study to date, consuming citrus fruits more than twice a day was associated with 37 times greater odds of dental erosion compared to those who consumed citrus fruits less often. It also appears risky to consume apple cider vinegar or sports drinks once a week or more and soft drinks daily. These habits resulted in the odds of erosion being ten, four, and four times greater, respectively, than when the habit did not exist.

How can we get the benefits of healthy foods like citrus while minimizing the risks of dental erosion? The most important thing is that we should never brush right after we eat sour fruit. We should wait at least 30 minutes. Acid softens our enamel such that if we brush right away we can actually brush away some of our enamel.

I profile a study where they had some folks swish some acidic solution (diet Sprite) and then brush immediately after, or 10, 20, 30 or 60 minutes after. Drinking soda without brushing at all can lead to some enamel loss, but we may double or triple that damage if we brush our teeth when they’re in the acidified softened state. The researchers suggest we should wait at least 30 minutes and probably a whole hour afterwards to be safe. The simple solution is that after eating anything sour we should rinse our mouth with water to help neutralize the acid.

So should we avoid healthy foods like citrus? No! We just need to rinse.

What’s so great about citrus? See for example:

More on oral health in:

Anything else people eating healthy diets should be aware of? The most important consideration is vitamin B12. See my blog posts Vitamin B12: how much, how often? and Vegan B12 deficiency: putting it into perspective.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 year-in-review presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

Image credit: radiant guy / Flickr

Related:
Cancer-Proofing Your Body
How Do Plant-Based Diets Fight Cancer?
Eating Green to Prevent Cancer

Read more: Health, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, General Health, Videos, , ,

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at NutritionFacts.org.

71 comments

+ add your own
7:29PM PDT on Aug 30, 2013

Thank you for the interesting article

10:04AM PDT on May 16, 2013

Many people think cavities only affect children, but changes that occur with aging make cavities an adult problem too. Recession of the gums (a pulling away of gum tissue from the teeth), often associated with an increased incidence of gingivitis (gum disease), can expose tooth roots to plaque. Also, sugary food cravings can make anyone more vulnerable to developing cavities. Thanks for sharing.

dentist Brooklyn

5:44PM PDT on Apr 4, 2013

Interesting info, thank you.

5:43PM PDT on Apr 4, 2013

Interesting info, thank you.

11:06AM PDT on Mar 12, 2013

I believe genetics can also be part of one's dental issues. I grew up on chemical-free, farm raised food, did not have a sweet tooth, flouride was not allowed, have always been very healthy, yet got familiar with dentists way too well early in my teens. I'd love to see all the new cars my dentists were able to buy because of my mouth!

3:40AM PDT on Mar 12, 2013

I learned something new here, not to brush directly after eating sour fruit!
By the way if drinking fruit was heathy you could circumvent the teeth problem by drinking it with a straw, but it is not healthy to drink the fruit compared to eating the fruit.

11:50AM PDT on Mar 11, 2013

i'm told a diet of animal products is "the only reason for cavities" and "leave sugar alone".

5:38PM PST on Mar 9, 2013

thanks

7:48AM PST on Mar 9, 2013

thank you

3:08AM PST on Mar 8, 2013

Interesting information, thanks.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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