If Sugar’s What Teeth Don’t Need, Just What Do They Need?

While limiting sugar and other fermentable carbs is important for keeping teeth cavity-free, as we noted last time, eating plenty of the good stuff matters even more.

Just ask any good pediatric dentist 🙂

Naturally, that raises the question: Just what is that “good stuff” anyway? It starts with whole and minimally processed food.

produce aisleThese are the foods that are mostly stocked around the perimeter of your average grocery store: fresh produce, meat and fish, and dairy. Some can be found in the center aisles, as well, including beans and other legumes, nuts, bulk whole grains, and healthy oils such as olive, avocado, and coconut.

They’re the raw materials for making delicious and healthful recipes that even the pickiest kid might enjoy. Spiralized vegetables can become “pasta” to top with your favorite sauce. Any seasoned meat or fish can be wrapped in thick-leafed lettuce to make “tacos.” Cauliflower can be steamed, riced, and blended with oregano and cheese to become a pizza crust ready for any toppings you like.

The possibilities are as vast as your imagination – or a ready supply of recipes found online or in cookbooks.

Whole and minimally processed foods are also the ones that are nutrient-dense. The more that ingredients are processed, the more nutrients they tend to lose. It’s why, for instance, hyper-processed products like breakfast cereals are “fortified” with vitamins and minerals. They replace the ones that have been destroyed.

Ideally, you want foods that are local, organic, and sustainably raised. Though this can be expensive, there are many ways to make it work on a budget. For one, you can prioritize your purchases using tools such as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

downtown Austin farmer's marketConsider shopping farmers’ markets or joining a CSA (community supported agriculture). It’s a great way to keep costs down while also having access to an incredible variety of fresh, organic food. More, you get the chance to talk with the actual farmers so you can know exactly how the food was raised.

Local Harvest offers a good directory of CSAs in the Austin area, while Edible Austin offers this helpful guide to farmers’ markets in our region.

You’ll find more good tips for eating organic on a budget here and here and here.

A healthful diet is also one with a lot of variety. It’s the best way to make sure you get the full spectrum of nutrients a body needs to thrive. What’s good for your body is good for your mouth, but there are several nutrients that are especially important for healthy teeth: vitamins D and K, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous.

When conditions in the mouth are acidic – such as when plaque builds up or you eat a lot of sugar or drink acidic beverages such as sodas or fruit juice – essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous can be stripped from the hard enamel protecting each living tooth. Fortunately, your saliva constantly delivers these minerals to your teeth.

meat and vegetables on forkVitamin D and magnesium both help your body better absorb and utilize calcium. Vitamin K helps direct that calcium to where your body needs it. Dark, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, radish, cauliflower, and more), avocado, meat, grapes, and eggs are all good sources of vitamin K. Your best source of D is sunlight, which converts compounds in your body to this essential nutrient.

Those dark, leafy greens also tend to be excellent sources of minerals such as magnesium and calcium; likewise, beans and nuts. Fish, meat, legumes, nuts, and dairy are good sources of phosphorous.

Do keep in mind, though, that remineralization is not the same thing as regrowing tooth enamel – something that can’t be done naturally, although scientists are working hard on stem cell research that may one day give us a way to encourage such regrowth. Your body can grow new dentin – the softer, darker tissue that the enamel protects – but once enamel is gone, it’s gone for good, and the teeth are more vulnerable to decay.

So how do you put this all together into tasty meals that both you and your kids will enjoy?

The Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) is one of the most valuable organizations out there for educating the public on healthful eating. Their Nourishing Traditions cookbook offers a wonderful guide. (It’s similar to paleo, but there are some important differences.) They also have a wealth of information on their website, particularly with respect to children’s nutrition.

There’s even a WAPF chapter here in Austin. It’s a wonderful way to connect with other holistically-minded parents and find local sources of raw dairy and other sometimes difficult to source foods.

And if you feel unsure about cooking, take a class and learn – there are even classes for kids here in Austin – or explore some of the free online tutorials available, such as Chef2Chef or the New York Times “Cooking” hub. There’s plenty of good stuff on YouTube, as well.

Give good nutrition priority in your family, and you’ve laid the foundation for good health, oral and systemic alike.

Image credits: farmer’s market by Lars Plougmann, via Wikimedia Commons;
fork by Joshua Rappeneker, via Flickr