Brush twice a day, floss often, use mouthwash… and eat? The secret to healthy teeth for life might be in the refrigerator. Certain foods can help prevent , keep (sticky bacteria filled-film that can cover the teeth and gums) at bay, and even freshen breath. Read on to learn how to impress the dentist by incorporating tooth-friendly foods into every meal.

The Best Foods

Milk and Eggs

Best Foods for Your Teeth

You might have guessed milk would be on this list. Dairy products like milk and are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D. (Fun fact: You can also get from about five to 30 minutes of sun exposure at least twice a week). Think of calcium and vitamin D as the Batman and Robin of bone health. The body requires a dose of vitamin D to absorb , which in turn strengthens . Boonen S, Vanderschueren D, Haentjens P. Journal of internal medicine, 2006, Jul.;259(6):0954-6820. Not into milk? There are plenty of non-dairy alternatives.

Cheese and Yogurt

Best Foods for Your Teeth

Foods rich in and phosphorus can protect tooth enamel and even help replace minerals in teeth (a process called remineralization). Low-fat and plain nonfat are classic calcium-rich choices. Cheese is especially beneficial because it contains , a protein found in milk products that can shore up enamel. Vashisht R, Kumar A, Indira R. Contemporary clinical dentistry, 2012, Mar.;1(4):0976-2361.

Meat, Fish, and Tofu

, fatty fish (like ), and are loaded with phosphorus, another important mineral that may protect tooth enamel. Arnold WH, Gaengler P. Annals of anatomy = Anatomischer Anzeiger : official organ of the Anatomische Gesellschaft, 2007, May.;189(2):0940-9602. made from meat bones is a particular good source of this essential mineral.

Broccoli, Bok Choy, and Other Dark, Leafy Veggies

Best Foods for Your Teeth

Looking for vegetarian-friendly sources for the minerals we've mentioned? Broccoli, bok choy, kale, okra, collards, and other dark, leafy veggies are excellent animal-free ways to get .

Celery, Carrots, and Other Crunchy Veggies

Best Foods for Your Teeth

Just like the rest of your body, teeth require a little work every now and then to stay sharp. Crunchy, firm foods that contain lots of water (and require lots of chewing) are good for oral health because they stimulate the flow of saliva and can actually scrub tooth surfaces, your pearly whites. Mackie DA, Pangborn RM. Physiology & behavior, 1990, Aug.;47(3):0031-9384. also contains enzymes that buffer the acids present in food and clean bits of food out of nooks and crannies.

is almost always a good dietary choice. Full of water and , this raw veggie is basically nature’s floss.

Artificial Sweeteners

Whether artificial sweeteners are safe is still up for debate, but some dentists might be in the “pro” camp. Some fake sweeteners, like Xylitol, can actually prevent cavities. Nadimi H, Wesamaa H, Janket SJ. British dental journal, 2011, Oct.;211(7):1476-5373. So when an urge to snack on sweet stuff hits, grab a stick of sugar-free gum instead of a lollipop. Mickenautsch S, Leal SC, Yengopal V. Journal of applied oral science : revista FOB, 2010, Jun.;15(2):1678-7765.

Apples

Best Foods for Your Teeth

Apples and other high-fiber fruits can scrub away plaque and freshen breath (so hit up the produce stand before heading to a hot date).

The Worst Foods

Lime, Lemons, Oranges, and Grapefruit

Worst Foods for Your Teeth

It’s no surprise that citrus is loaded with citric acid. Penniston KL, Nakada SY, Holmes RP. Journal of endourology / Endourological Society, 2008, Sep.;22(3):0892-7790. (foods with a low pH rating) are the number-one cause of enamel erosion and tooth decay. Lussi A, Jaeggi T, Zero D. Caries research, 2004, Feb.;38 Suppl 1():0008-6568.

But if you just can't go without a glass of Florida O.J. in the morning, minimize your acid exposure by drinking the juice in one sitting (a.k.a. not sipping for hours) and then avoiding other for several hours. And keep in mind: If a food or drink easily stains the teeth (we’re looking at you, coffee and red wine), it’s usually fairly acidic.

Pickles

What happens when you mix veggies and vinegar? If you guessed a tooth’s worst nightmare, you’d be right. Pickles are tasty on a sandwich, but the combination of super-acidic vinegar and sugar is a recipe for .

Coffee

Worst Foods for Your Teeth

Sorry, coffee addicts. Not so surprisingly, that morning cup (or three) of Joe puts oral health at risk. The in coffee (and some teas) wear down enamel and can even stain teeth brown. Bazzi JZ, Bindo MJ, Rached RN. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 2012, Oct.;143(5):1943-4723. But if you refuse to give up your brew, take heart: Coffee does have .

Red Wine

Studies show a glass of red wine every once in a while can be good for the heart and cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever experienced “wine teeth” knows that the purplish beverage can stain quite easily. The acids in wear down the surface of teeth, which is why stains are so common.

Tomatoes

Worst Foods for Your Teeth

They might make taste buds happy all summer long, but tomatoes are less beneficial for teeth. Both raw and in sauce form, tomatoes are . The solution? Eat them as part of a meal to get the health benefits, and avoid the dental issues.

Soda

We already know that soda is bad for happiness and health. The combination of sugar, acids, and carbonation is a death sentence for teeth. Countless studies have linked soda consumption (both regular and diet) with tooth erosion and decay. Cheng R, Yang H, Shao MY. Journal of Zhejiang University. Science. B, 2009, Jul.;10(5):1862-1783. Moynihan P, Petersen PE. Public health nutrition, 2004, Apr.;7(1A):1368-9800.

Candy

Worst Foods for Your Teeth

Remember how Mom cautioned against a sugar binge on Halloween? Turns out, she was right: Chowing down on is bad for tooth health. The sweet stuff can and get stuck in crevices (becoming tasty fodder for bacteria).

Hard candies are particularly bad for your pearly whites. Lollipops, mints, and any other sugary treats (even cough drops) that linger in the mouth to sugar and acids for a long period of time. They’re much worse than a sugary treat that’s quickly chewed and swallowed (especially if they’re flavored).

Dried Fruit

Though yummy in granola or energy bars, dried fruit is a perfect storm of stickiness and chewiness. The are practically made for getting stuck between teeth, and most dried fruits (even those without added sugars) are off-the-charts sweet.

The Takeaway

Avoiding dentures by age 40 doesn’t mean swearing off all dark liquids, sweets, and citrus fruits. Keeping teeth healthy (and making the dentist happy) is all about using techniques that limit damage. Here are a few easy tips:

  • Eat acidic or sugary foods or drinks rather than on their own. Pro tip: Though brushing after a meal is generally a good idea, avoid brushing your teeth after consuming acidic foods. Acid softens your enamel, and brushing can speed up tooth wear.
  • Limit snacking on acidic or high-sugar foods.
  • Use a flouride toothpaste, which can help repair enamel, and reduce the risk of tooth decay and dental erosion.
  • Don’t swish acidic drinks or hold them in your mouth—this exposes the teeth to acids for longer than necessary. Better yet, when drinking coffee, wine, or soda to protect enamel. The bartender might poke fun, but we’ll see who’s laughing at your next dentist appointment.

Originally published October 2013. Updated September 2015.

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