Don’t neglect your oral health – your ability to eat depends on it

There have been tremendous advances in dentistry over the years helping us to keep or obtain a beautiful smile, but it still is very important to take care of what’s in our mouth – your teeth and gums.  Oral health often gets overlooked in the scheme of taking care of ourselves. We may not brush as often as we should, or we forget to floss or even keep regular dental appointments.  But if we want to be able to chew and eat our food in a comfortable manner, this is an area not to neglect.  Because we have to eat just to stay alive and it’s one of the pleasures of life, our oral health should take precedence. 

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Nutrition and oral health work together.  If we eat a nutritious healthy diet, this usually keeps our teeth and gums healthy and lessens the likelihood of oral diseases.  If our oral health declines, this impacts our ability to eat nutritious foods.  By paying attention to both, what we eat and taking care of our oral cavity, this can lead to a lifelong synergistic relationship.

What can go wrong in the mouth and why oral health matters

From the day we’re born until the day we die, our oral health needs nurtured as numerous things can go wrong in the oral cavity.  Listed below are some conditions more likely to be either influenced by what we are eating or have an impact on our ability to eat:

·         Dental plaque –Plaque is a soft, sticky film that continually builds up on our teeth and gums adhering to our tooth enamel.  It contains millions of bacteria which break down components of saliva.   Plaque allows the bacteria to remain on our teeth but if we brush and floss our teeth daily, this can help remove it.  If we don’t brush or floss frequently, then the plaque builds up and will need to be removed at the dentist office. 

·         Gingivitis – Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums usually caused by a bacterial infection.  Signs and symptoms of it include red, swollen, tender gums that may bleed when you brush.  Another sign is recession of the gums where they have pulled away from the teeth.  Gingivitis occurs due to dental plaque not being removed on a regular basis.  If gingivitis is not treated, it can become periodontitis and cause permanent damage to your teeth and gums such as loosening of the teeth and loss of bone.

·         Dental caries or cavities – This is a very common condition most of us have experienced.  It’s caused by a combination of factors including what we eat, how well we’re taking care of our teeth and the presence of fluoride in our water and toothpaste.  They can also be caused by bacteria in our mouth which actively ferment dietary carbohydrates as a food source. The fermentation causes acids to demineralize or break down the tooth enamel.  Once that happens, the bacteria move into the tooth causing the formation of a cavity. 

·         Tooth loss, dentures and implants – All of these situations can have an impact on the functional ability to bite, chew and swallow food.  When you’re missing teeth or have to depend on dentures or an implant, it can affect diet quality and nutritional status.  As an example, using dentures is not the same as your natural teeth and can have a negative effect on eating ability by possibly avoiding certain foods like fruits, vegetables or meat that are hard to chew leading to malnutrition. 

Special situations affecting oral health

·         Eating disorders – Bulimia and anorexia can impact the oral cavity. Bulimia is associated with bingeing and purging of food or where they eat a large amount of food in a short period of time and then purge or get rid of it usually by self-induced vomiting.  The combination of eating carbohydrate foods followed by vomiting results in constant exposure of the mouth to acid from food and the acidic contents of the stomach, which can cause tooth erosion or decay along with enlarging the parotid glands due to increased saliva production.

Anorexics are at risk of developing xerostomia - dryness in the mouth - usually as a result of medications such as antidepressants or diuretics.  Their oral health will also suffer due to nutritional deficiencies because of the reduced intake of food.

·         Older adults – Approximately 25% of adults over the age of 65 have no natural teeth, about one-third have untreated dental caries, 40% have periodontal disease and those living in poverty are twice as likely to be edentulous or have no teeth.  Older adults are also at a greater risk of xerostomia due to medications. They also have a higher rate of chronic diseases such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, all of which can lead to poor oral health.

·         Canker sores – These small shallow lesions also called aphthous ulcers, develop on the soft tissues in your mouth or at the base of your gums.  They are not contagious but can be very painful making eating more difficult possibly resulting in poor intake of food.  Usually they go away on their own within a week or two but if they don’t seem to want to heal, are unusually large or are reoccurring frequently, go see your doctor or dentist. 

How bad oral health influences our diet

When any of the above situations are occurring, this can lead to the inability to eat or chew certain foods resulting in what foods we choose to eat or not.  Often nutrient dense foods such as fruits and vegetables or meats are avoided as they tend to be harder to chew which could lead to deficiencies of certain nutrients.  When we are lacking certain nutrients, this can lead to decreased immunity, wound healing and weakened tooth structure. 

Positive steps to take to improve oral health

Fortunately there are many steps we can do to keep our teeth and gums as healthy and functioning as possible.  The earlier in life we make this a habit, the better our oral health will be.  Reducing the incidence of dental caries or tooth decay is the goal and here are tips on how to do this:

·         Always brush at least twice daily with fluoride containing toothpaste, particularly after meals.  Floss twice daily and use a mouth rinse.  Having a set routine is the best way to remove sugars and food particles from tooth surfaces.

·         Regular visits to the dentist, every six months, for checkups and cleanings from a dental hygienist will help with monitoring any changes in the mouth.

·         If you are not able to brush after a meal, chewing sugar-free gum is an option that will increase saliva production helping to remove food particles.

·         Reduce sugar intake as much as possible.  Sugar and high-sugar containing foods contribute to tooth decay and cavities.  Avoid sugar sweetened beverages such as soda, juice or sports drinks.

·         Know if your water supply is fluoridated or not.  A safe and effective rate for reducing dental cavities is when the water is fluoridated at the rate of 1 ppm (part per million). If your drinking water is not fluoridated, prescription fluoride drops or tablets may be prescribed by a doctor.  

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We’re only given one set of permanent teeth so it’s up to us to take as good of care of them as we can.  Doing so will reward us with a healthy, beautiful smile and the ability to eat nutritious foods for a lifetime.  


ABOUT CHERYL MUSSATTO | REGISTERED DIETITIAN

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian and an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, Burlingame, Kansas and Butler County Community College, Council Grove, Kansas; she teaches Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition.  She is also a certified health and wellness coach, and a clinical dietitian for the Cotton O’Neil Medical Clinic in Osage City, Kansas where she does individualized nutrition counseling.  She writes Eat Well to Be well, a column about health and nutrition forwww.osagecountyonline.com  and is a blog contributor for Dr. David B. Samadi at www.samadimd.com.  Contact her ateatwell2bewellrd@gmail.com, visit her website www.eatwell2bewellrd.com, or like “eat well 2 be well” on Facebook.