Vegan dental health is a topic of concern for many people considering transitioning over to a plant-based way of living. We often get asked about the potential harm that the diet can do to our teeth here at Happy Happy Vegan, so we thought it would be a good idea to explore the subject in a little more depth.
When people eliminate specific groups of food from their diet, it is only natural that they have concerns over what effect these changes may have on their overall health and wellbeing. Shifting across to a plant-based diet is a big step and there is a lot of misinformation out there, especially when it comes to oral health. This article aims to redress the balance and give you the information that you need to ensure that you maintain a high standard of vegan dental health.
Let’s get started!
Dairy, calcium and vegans
First things first, we need to address the elephant in the room – dairy!
It is a mistaken belief that vegans put their bones and teeth at risk due to a lack of calcium as they eliminate dairy products from their diet, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
As we explored in our lengthy list of plant-based calcium foodstuffs, dairy products are not the only place you can find good sources of calcium. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and the like can all provide you with more than enough calcium to replace what you’ll miss from dairy.
That being said, in order to get the most calcium out of these foods as possible, you should also make sure you eat fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K as well. This is because, like so many other minerals and nutrients, calcium needs a little helping hand in order to do its job properly.
Some groups, such as children and women over 50, may benefit from calcium supplements, but most of us will get adequate amounts simply by eating a properly balanced vegan diet.
Vitamin A is one of the simplest vitamins for vegetarians to get because it is found in so many fruits and vegetables. It does, however, come in two forms – retinoids and carotenoids – and it’s important to make the distinction between each of them as one is vegan, while the other most definitely isn’t.
Retinoids, including the extremely common retinol, are found in products and foods derived from animals. Carotenoids such as beta-carotene on the other hand, come from plants, so these are the vitamin A sources vegans should aim for on a daily basis.
Beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A and it’s found in foods such as carrots, dried apricots, peppers, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, squash and watercress. Beta-carotene, unlike retinol, has the added health benefit of containing antioxidants as well.
Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and the best way to get this is from spending time in the sun, so whether you eat meat or you are a vegan is largely irrelevant. The biggest problem when it comes to getting enough vitamin D is the amount of time that we now spend indoors. Longer work hours and a more sedentary, indoor lifestyle all contribute to us not receiving enough vitamin D from the big burning globe in the sky.
Many people choose to supplement vitamin D, but we can still get a certain amount from food, albeit very little. While meat eaters can find vitamin D in fish and dairy, the best source for us vegans is mushrooms.
Studies have shown that vitamin D can help to break down harmful bacteria, strengthen tooth enamel and, in some instances, even reverse tooth decay, so getting enough is extremely important for our dental health.
Vitamin K is also useful in helping you to absorb calcium, so it’s another nutrient that we really need to pay attention to if we want to keep our teeth sparkling and strong.
Dental issues commonly associated with veganism
There are plenty of horror stories out there when it comes to veganism and dental health. Here we take a look at some of the most common and give you the low down on each of them.
Contrary to popular belief, studies show that vegans do not have a greater incidence of cavities. Nevertheless, vegans do have an increased risk of dental erosion, and this is predominantly due to the high intake of acidic foods and foods that contain a high level of natural sugars.
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to avoid these foodstuffs altogether. It’s more a case of knowing how to look after your dental health in general and what effect these foods have on your teeth – all of which we’ll get to later.
Citrus fruits can cause oral problems
Citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes, are a fantastic source of nutrients for everyone, not just vegans. The goodness found inside these fabulous fruits include vitamin C, glycaemic and non-glycaemic carbohydrates, potassium, folate and phytochemicals to name just a few.
Each of these nutrients contributes to your bodily functions, general health and overall wellbeing, making them a vital component of a well-balanced diet. Luckily, citrus fruits can easily be incorporated into our day-to-day regime as snacks, ingredients for meals or as a flavouring. However, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns when it comes to these delicious delights.
It has long been known that fruit drinks can cause erosion, but more recent research shows that eating fruit can have a similar effect. This is especially the case with fruits that have high acidity, such as the ones we are talking about here – citrus fruits. Therefore, although these fruits contain some really important nutrients, it is vital to remember the effect that eating them regularly has on our teeth.
Thankfully, there are oral hygiene measures that you can take to combat the negative effects of these fruits, and we’ll explore these techniques later on in this article.
Fruit sugars can heighten the risk of decay
Dentists use the term cariogenic to describe people who have an increased risk of cavities and, unfortunately, we vegans fall into this category. One possible reason for this is that we generally eat a lot of fruits that are high in natural sugars which can lead to damaged teeth.
Risk is increased further as vegans may graze on these foods regularly, believing them to be an entirely healthy snack option, which brings us nicely to our next point.
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Grazing and snacking can increase plaque
While grazing and snacking constantly throughout the day is fine for your metabolism, it is not so good for your teeth.
We vegans are often guilty of grazing between meals. However, there is a downside to this constant snacking. Because our teeth have more contact with food, we are effectively encouraging the development of plaque and increasing the risk of cavities.
Every time sugar comes into contact with your teeth it takes just 20 seconds for acid to form and attack them, making the possibility of plaque forming on them greater. Yikes!
Snacking less will reduce the effects of this, as will following the guidelines laid out below for maintaining good oral health.
It is not just about what we eat, what we drink is just as important.
We all know that soda is acidic and harmful to our teeth, and that the sugar they contain converts to acid and attacks your tooth enamel further. However, few of us regard fruit juices in the same way. Even some herbal teas can be harmful to the health of your teeth and can lead to cavities. Alcohol and coffee, too, can cause dental issues when taken in excess.
Being aware of what we are consuming and knowing how best to look after our teeth is vital if we wish to maintain good dental health as vegans.
Oral health benefits of eating plants
It’s not all bad news, though. Some plant-based foods are actually beneficial to dental health and this is in part due to the fact that many are high in calcium and protein; two nutrients that contribute to healthy teeth.
Some studies have also shown that eating a plant-based diet can even reduce the likelihood of problems with the surrounding tissues that support the teeth themselves. Not only that, a well-balanced vegan diet can also help with the following as well:
Reduced risk of oral cancer
There is evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of oral cancer. The best foods to eat to protect against this form of the disease are things such as carrots, citrus fruits, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables.
Arginine rich diet can help with dental health
Arginine is an amino acid that can help reduce the risk of cavities, gum disease and gingivitis. By following a well-balanced plant-based diet, vegans easily meet the recommended daily arginine levels. In fact, it’s hard not to!
Some of the best sources of arginine include beans, including bean sprouts, soy beans and black beans, and nuts, all staples of the vegan diet.
A more alkaline pH balance
When you make a significant change to your diet, such as becoming a vegan, the pH balance in your body also changes. This is one reason given for why some people notice a deterioration in their dental health in the initial stages of adopting a plant-based diet.
However, as animal products are often acidic and plant-based foods are more alkaline, switching to a vegan lifestyle is potentially beneficial in the long term as an alkaline pH is better for teeth.
Want to keep check of your PH levels at home? Click here
Tips for maintaining good oral health on a vegan diet
Although how a plant-based diet affects teeth has been studied many times, it is difficult for researchers to provide definitive answers regarding positive or negative impacts. This is because there are so many other factors relating to the health of teeth, including lifestyle, diet, genetics, personal health and the levels of fluoride in the water.
That being said, there are plenty of things that you can do to ensure that your oral health stays in good shape. Let’s take a look at some now.
Eating a balanced diet
A common mistake that is made by many new vegans is to think that because they have removed meat and dairy products from their diet that they are eating healthily. This is only true if your diet is balanced and provides you with the right mix of nutrients you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including dental health.
It has never been easier than it is today to be an unhealthy vegan. The food industry is cottoning on to the plant-based revolution, and the amount of vegan processed foods on the shelves reflects this. Don’t get caught up in the marketing, stick to whole foods.
Researching the different food types is a great way to make sure you get everything in your diet that you need to keep your teeth and the rest of your body healthy.
Foods to avoid
The foods to avoid in order to protect your teeth are the same for vegans as for non-vegans. Both acidic and sugary foods are harmful, regardless of your choice of diet and lifestyle. By keeping your intake of these to a minimum, you’ll improve your chances of good dental health.
Cleaning your teeth
Cleaning your teeth properly is one of the best steps that you can take to protect your teeth, regardless of whether you are an omnivore or you have embraced the vegan lifestyle.
However, mindlessly reaching for the toothbrush is not advised. If you have eaten sugary or acidic foods, then you must wait to clean your teeth to prevent causing further damage as the enamel will be softened by the acid contained in the food. Current recommendations suggest waiting for at least 30 minutes, although letting your mouth settle for an hour before brushing will bring the best results.
Don’t forget to floss and try scraping your tongue for maximum oral hygiene, too. Dental water jets can also help keep your beloved teeth in tip-top condition.
Always, always, always rinse
A further step that you should always take to limit the damaging effects of acidic or sugary foods is to rinse immediately after eating them rather than brushing.
Use both water and an enamel guarding mouthwash to cleanse your mouth properly and maintain good dental and oral health. This is possibly one of the best tips that any vegan can follow with regard to maintaining great teeth.
Getting more information
The best experts on dental health are dentists. If you are considering embarking on a vegan lifestyle or if you’re already eating a plant-based diet but are concerned about your dental health, then speak to your dentist at your next visit. They can offer you the appropriate advice and guidance regarding both your diet and your dental health.
The final word on vegan dental health
There is some evidence to suggest that following a plant-based diet does put your dental health at risk. However, this is often due to a lack of knowledge about general cleaning habits and which foods cause damage to the teeth, such as those that are naturally high in acidity or sugar.
If you eat foods that promote good dental health and reduce your intake of foods that damage the teeth, then there is no reason why you should not be able to maintain good oral and dental health as a vegan. While research into the subject may be sketchy at best (as it is so hard to control), looking after your teeth and being aware of what you are eating and drinking will go a long way to protecting your precious pearly whites.