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Vegan/Vegetarian Diets and Dental Health

Progressively more people have decided to move to a vegan or vegetarian diet for both health benefits and environmental impact. It is always a good idea to discuss large dietary changes with your dentist and physician first. They may be able to discuss with you the vital vitamins and minerals you may have to supplement.

Dietary changes can cause issues with dental health if not done carefully. Eating a plant based diet can change the pH balance in your body and mouth, which can cause an increase in tooth decay and gum disease.

A study published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegetarians are much more likely to suffer from tooth decay, more acidic salivary (spit) pH levels, and lower stimulated saliva flow than non-vegetarians.

What is it that is missing from vegan and vegetarian diets that is leading to this tooth decay?  Not getting enough vitamin D and calcium.

Vegans looking for vitamin D probably will need to look at supplements. Supplements can be challenging because often they are not as regulated as other health products. Keeping with larger brands is usually more predictable with supplements for getting what is advertised. Check the labels carefully, as some of the ingredients in the supplements may be derived from animals. Often vitamin D is derived from ground bones. Vitamin D2 and D3 from lichen are vegan friendly.

Vegan sources of calcium include: calcium fortified soy or nut milks, tofu, soybeans, soy nuts, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, Chinese cabbage, kale, mustard greens and okra.

There are 3 main concerns when a diet lacks meat and dairy: snacking, acid, and a lack of re-mineralizing food products.

Vegans and vegetarians often include snacking to maintain their bodies need for energy due to the lower fat content in these diets. However, constant snacking is a huge problem for oral health.  The pH level in your mouth drops the moment food goes in and stays lower for 30 minutes. This creates a more acidic environment that wears down tooth enamel and provides a breeding ground for the bacteria that causes tooth decay. This acidic environment continues for 30 minutes. If you eat a snack every 30 minutes you will stay constantly in a lower pH. Neutralizing the acid found in plaque can be aided by adding garlic or ginger to your diet. It also helps to rinse your mouth with water after a snack or better yet brush and floss after each snack. Take a break between snacks and meals to give salivary glands, teeth and jaws the proper rest they need.

What further complicates this approach to eating is the type of food vegetarians and vegans are prone to snack on: carbohydrate-rich acidic fruit, or dry sticky fruits. This double-whammy of a constantly acidic mouth from snacking combined with even more acid from fruit is a recipe for weak enamel and cavities. Dried fruit, even organic, has a lot of available sugars for bacteria and can become a huge problem.

To counter this effect, snack less, avoid sticky fruits, choose from more firm, less acidic fruits and keep a bottle of water nearby to continually rinse your mouth. Seek out more complex carbohydrate choices such as whole grains, nuts, and whole fruits.

Research also suggests that meat, dairy and seafood help teeth in 2 ways. They may counteract acidity in the mouth, and aid in the remineralization of teeth that have been demineralized in an acidic environment. Nuts, green leafy vegetables and sea vegetables can help with remineralization.

Vegan and vegetarian diets can be wonderful in many ways. As with every diet make sure you follow it in a way that will help your health. Food choice is the most important drug you can take. Also consider supplements that will provide proper balance of vitamins and minerals lacking in whichever diet you choose.

Please remember that diet is a vital part of a person’s medical history. Patients should always inform their dentist and dental hygienist if they follow special forms of diet.

Maintaining healthy teeth is an important part of healthy living!

Davidson Family Dentistry

Posted June 21st, 2019