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An Ounce of Prevention - The Ottawa Citizen

April 13, 2010
Liz Bruckner

When it comes to taking care of his teeth, Ryan Clusiau has a system. And it's one that doesn't involve regular visits to the dentist. "I've found over the years that if I eat healthy foods and am regularly brushing and flossing, my teeth seem fine and I don't feel the need to go very often," says the 31-year-old Peterborough, Ont., resident.

While dental professionals might legitimately question Clusiau's attitude toward dental appointments, his adoption of a nutritionally sound eating plan -- like the one outlined in Canada's Food Guide -- does fall in line with what dental and nutritional experts advocate.

"Good nutrition promotes good oral health because it encourages healthy development and maintenance of the mouth's tissues," says Natalie Brown, a registered dietitian based in Surrey, B.C.

Poor nutrition does just the opposite. Because what we eat affects our entire immune system, diets that lack proper nutrients lower the body's ability to fight off disorders like periodontal disease, and may even be linked to conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The good news? It's never too late to change your eating habits. A few preventive steps today could help keep your pearly whites healthy for life.

Eat Vitamin-Rich Foods

Studies have found that people with diets low in calcium (crucial for building the bone density that supports teeth) were almost twice as likely to have periodontal disease, and those lacking vitamin C, which plays a role in maintaining and repairing healthy tissues, had a higher chance of developing gingivitis.

"Changing your eating habits doesn't have to be a painful process," says Brown. Limiting simple sugars, including healthy carbohydrates such as whole fresh fruits and vegetable, choosing low-fat dairy products, and staying away from foods containing trans fats (hydrogenated oils) are good first steps.

Drink Up

When brushing isn't possible, drinking water -- especially fluoride-containing tap water -- is your next best bet, says Dr. Ron Smith, a dentist in Duncan, B.C., especially after you've eaten foods high in sugar. "Keeping your mouth moist is important for increasing saliva and dissolving acids, which unchecked can lead to plaque formation and eventually tooth decay."

Choose Healthy Snacks

"Firm, crunchy fruits and vegetables are good choices since they have a high water content that can dilute the effects of sugar on teeth," says Brown. When opting for foods with higher acidity (such as citrus fruits and tomatoes), aim to eat them as part of a larger meal to minimize the effects of their acid content on teeth.

Change Your Habits

"In addition to oral hygiene, eating habits -- and not necessarily foods themselves -- are significant factors in causing or preventing tooth decay," says Smith, and adds that the more often you eat or snack, the more you expose your teeth to bacteria. To minimize exposure, pay attention to how often you're eating, says Brown. Because acids work on teeth for approximately 20 to 40 minutes after food is consumed, try to limit how often you snack throughout the day.

Use Your Tools Properly

Good oral health isn't achieved simply by putting a toothbrush in your mouth; it's knowing how to effectively use it, says Smith. When in doubt about how often to brush or floss, to determine which toothpaste is best for you, or to get general tips about preventing problems, talk to your dentist.

Schedule Regular Checkups

"Part of a checkup is to ensure your teeth are plaque-free and in good shape, but people should remember that many of the problems dentists spot in an exam -- such as gum disease, diabetes, oral cancers, thyroid problems, iron deficiencies and eating disorders -- are insidious, and most of the time people don't have a clue there's a concern until they're in serious trouble," says Brown. Stay on top of your oral health by seeing your dentist regularly, and keep in mind that preventing problems is always easier than treating them.

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