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Smile! Are You Eating Healthy?

If you're not eating right, you may be at risk for problems with your teeth and mouth. Bad eating habits can cause tooth decay and gum disease. Children's teeth are at special risk because they are still developing.

Here's how foods cause tooth decay: When you eat, food meets germs that live in your mouth. When you don't clean your teeth after eating, germs use sugar and starches found in many foods to make acids. These acids destroy the tooth's hard surface (the enamel) by dissolving it. Over time, tooth decay occurs.

Each time you eat something sugary or starchy, acids begin to bathe the teeth. This cavity-producing action continues for 20 to 40 minutes after the food is eaten. If the food eaten is gooey and sticky, such as taffy, the decay action may continue for much longer.

Here are suggestions to help your teeth stay healthy:

  • Enjoy a balanced mix of foods from each of the food groups recommended in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The recommended foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts.

  • If you eat sugary or starchy foods, do so during a meal. When you eat a meal, your mouth releases more saliva, and this helps wash away food debris.

  • Limit between meal snacks. When you do snack, choose healthy foods like fruits and vegetables; healthy snacks help to clean teeth. Also, try to eat the snack in one sitting rather than over a longer period. Afterward, rinse your mouth with water to get rid of the remaining food particles. Remember, the two most important factors in tooth decay are how often you eat and how long the food remains on your teeth.

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Brushing removes food debris and helps prevent tooth decay. Replace your toothbrush every three to four months, or as soon as the bristles begin to fray.

  • Clean your teeth daily with floss.

  • Visit your dentist twice a year.

If you give your infant a bottle as a pacifier, fill it with water only. Avoid juices, milk, and formula, except at a feeding. Sucking on a bottle or falling asleep with a bottle or during breastfeeding exposes the infant to the risk of "bottle mouth," or baby bottle tooth decay.

If you have questions about tooth care, talk with your dentist. Your dentist can help prevent problems.