Many folks are surprised by the fact that our ancient ancestors typically had healthier teeth than ours. They didn’t have the toothbrushes, toothpaste, or floss that we do, let alone get professional cleanings, yet their dental remains seldom show signs of decay.
But though they lacked everything that modern dentistry has to offer, our long-ago ancestors did have something that too many people lack today: a tooth-friendly diet.
In truth, good oral health doesn’t start with oral hygiene. It starts with what you eat. Nutrition is the very foundation of optimal oral health.
The Dental Impact of Traditional vs. Modern Diets
One of the most powerful examples of how diet impacts the mouth was the evidence amassed nearly a century ago by dental researcher Dr. Weston Price.
Back in the 1930s, Price traveled the world, studying the diets and dentition of various traditional and indigenous cultures. He found that groups eating traditional diets rich in animal foods and unprocessed plants had very low rates of tooth decay and dental problems.
He also found that when members of these traditional cultures adopted more modern, Western diets, loaded with processed foods, white flour, and sugar, their oral health deteriorated. The jaws of their offspring were underdeveloped. With less room in the jaws, their teeth were often crowded and crooked. Cavities were suddenly more common.
The standard American diet is a diet designed to create and perpetuate dental problems. Nearly 75% of our food supply consists of ultra processed foods, most of which deliver a lot of highly refined grains and sugars. Among other things, these ingredients fuel inflammation and are the preferred food of the oral bacteria responsible for caries (tooth decay) and gum disease.
Simply quitting or at least reducing your intake of added sugars and refined grains (think flour-based foods) is a crucial step in improving your oral (not to mention your overall) health.
But it’s not the only step. Good nutrition for oral health isn’t just about what you avoid putting in your body but what you’re replacing those empty calories with to ensure that your teeth, bones, and gums get all the nutrients they need.
The Proper Feeding of Teeth (& Gums & Bones)
When Dr. Price studied traditional cultures that were shifting to a more Western diet, the problem wasn’t just that people were eating more sugar and highly refined, processed foods. It was that these foods displaced their traditional foods, removing important vitamins and minerals from the diet.
The most important include calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins D3+K2 for strong teeth and bones, and vitamins A and C for healthy gums. Other nutrients – the B vitamins, for instance, and CoQ10 – have also been shown to benefit oral health, but the first batch listed are absolutely essential.
Recognizing this, Dr. Price advocated a diet based on nutrient-dense foods including bone broths, organ meats, and raw milk, as they could deliver good doses of many of the nutrients needed for optimal dental development and resistance to oral disease.
Organic produce – especially vegetables – is also key for delivering the vitamins and minerals healthy teeth need, along with the kind of organic and wild meats and dairy advocated by groups such as the Weston A. Price Foundation and the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation. You can read their basic dietary guidelines here and here.
There are other benefits to eating crunchy fruit and veg, as well. The abrasive action of foods like apples, carrots, celery, and broccoli helps clean plaque from teeth and stimulates saliva flow. Saliva neutralizes mouth acids and washes away food particles.
Including lots of fresh produce in your diet will also help ensure that you stay well hydrated through the day – something that’s essential for every cell and system in your body but also for ensuring that your body produces enough saliva. Not only do you need it to neutralize acids and wash away debris; it’s also a critical means to get all those vitamins and minerals delivered to your teeth on a regular, ongoing basis.
Because none of us can get all our hydration needs met through food, it’s also important that you drink plenty of water throughout the day. (Yes, coffee, tea, soft drinks, and other beverages also deliver water to your body but often other things, too, that your body would do a lot better without.)
Truthfully, this is a way of eating that’s well summed up in the famous aphorism from Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Your teeth and gums – along with the rest of your body – will thank you. Real, minimally processed food is what you were designed to eat, after all. It only makes sense that mouth and mind and body will be at their best when given the right fuel.