Dental health – looking after your teeth and gums

Good oral hygiene and eating habits can reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Smart eating habits can help keep your teeth and gums healthy. Teeth become susceptible to decay when acids in the mouth eat away at the tooth enamel, weakening the teeth and leading to cavities (holes in tooth enamel), particularly in hard-to-reach places.

Most of the acid in the mouth comes from the bacteria in dental plaque – a sticky, colourless film of bacteria and sugars that form on our teeth. Acid is also produced by bacteria in our mouth when we eat food and drinks containing carbohydrates. Food and drinks that stay in the mouth, or get stuck between teeth, or are nibbled or sipped over long periods of time, are the most likely to cause tooth decay. Eating very frequently can mean that the mouth maintains a fairly acidic environment for much of the day, which is a risk for teeth.

Dietitians will sometimes recommend small, frequent meals, especially for people finding it difficult to meet their energy or nutrient needs – such as children, who are growing and developing rapidly, and elderly people, who may be at risk of unintentional weight loss. For these people, and other Australians, drinking water with meals and between meals can assist in neutralising the oral cavity.

How to protect your teeth:

  • Clean your teeth at least twice a day, use circular motions which also cleans the gums
  • Regularly visit the dentist (at least annually)
  • Enjoy a well-balanced diet, including a range of foods from the core food groups like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy foods
  • Limit ‘discretionary’ or ‘extra’ foods that are high in refined sugars, or starches (and provide little nutrition). Foods like biscuits and crisps and some sweet foods like lollies or even dried fruit (or fruit bars) may become stuck in the crown of back teeth and may be difficult to shift, especially for children
  • Avoid acidic foods and drinks as their acidity level also contributes to tooth decay. Examples include fruit juice, carbonated (fizzy) drinks, sports drinks and pickled foods. Use a straw with acidic drinks to help minimize acid contact with teeth
  • Drink water during the day. And for people involved in low-intensity sports, including children, water is the best fluid to help you stay hydrated. If you’re taking part in higher intensity and/or prolonged exercise, and are using sports drinks, do so carefully. Sports drinks are acidic and contain sugar, so may contribute to dental erosion
  • Do not give children a bottle of milk to suck on when lying down or going to sleep, the drink can pool in the mouth, contributing to tooth decay. After one year of age, children should be using a cup for all drinks
  • Include foods that have been shown to offer some protection in preventing tooth decay, such as cheese.

For professional dietary advice to help prevent tooth decay contact an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).

Access information on the annual Dental Health Week campaign.