Why is Snacking So Bad for Your Teeth?
There’s a pretty good chance that you’re eating a snack while you read this. A recent survey revealed that 30% of Americans snack 3 or more times per day and over 90% of people snack everyday. Does this sound like you?
Over the years, as a dentist, I’ve seen some of the damage that can be done to teeth by too much snacking. Keep reading and I’ll help you understand why you shouldn’t snack all day and give you a few ideas for tooth-friendly snacks.
Snacking Doesn’t Just Affect Dental Health
Dental health is part of your overall health - a simple concept, but many people somehow see the mouth as being separate from the rest of the body. We see the mouth as the gateway to your overall health, and the foods we eat play a critical role.
So as you might guess, snacking too much (especially on the wrong types of foods) can contribute to health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
This is partly due to the fact that people tend to snack on high calorie, sugary, salty, convenience foods, like those you can find at fast food restaurants and in vending machines. These foods are comforting and may even be designed to be addictive. And these days many offices offer free or reduced cost snacks to employees. It’s become a common “perk,” especially in the tech industry.
The calories really add up when you’re snacking mindlessly and frequently. Small portions of snack foods can be surprisingly calorie-dense.
For example, a small handful of M&M’s can have over 200 calories (roughly 10% of an average person’s daily allowance). Even a seemingly healthy snack, like cashews, have over 15 calories per nut (plus they’re often heavily salted). The numbers and health risks can really add up, even if you’re eating small portions.
How Snacking Hurts Your Teeth
The health of your teeth and gums partially depends on the level of acidity (also known as pH) in your mouth. Ideally, your mouth will have a neutral pH, meaning that it’s neither too acidic nor too basic (the opposite of acidic).
Every time you eat or drink, the bacteria in your mouth start to break down the food you just ate or the liquid you drank. The bacteria produce acids as a byproduct of this process. Acids eat away at the enamel of your teeth, a process called demineralization. And if your teeth are exposed to enough acid, frequently enough, you’ll develop cavities in your teeth.
To break it down, food + bacteria = acid, and acid + teeth = cavities.
Luckily, our bodies have a natural way to stop this process: saliva. Your saliva contains calcium and phosphates which neutralize acids and return your mouth to a neutral pH, which stops demineralization and starts a process known as remineralization, where minerals are reintroduced back into the enamel, strengthening it again (fluoride is important in this process too, but we’ll talk more about this soon).
Unfortunately, when you snack frequently the bacteria in your mouth have a steady supply of food and keep producing acid, so your teeth are constantly bathed in acid. Your saliva just can’t keep up!
In addition to upsetting the pH balance of your mouth, certain types of starchy foods, like crackers and pretzels, for example, are more likely to leave sticky bits of food between your teeth. And since you’re not likely to brush after every snack, your teeth will be at extra risk for cavities and decay.
Cleaning Your Teeth
If you find yourself snacking during the day, take time out to give your teeth a gentle brushing, maybe after lunch or before you go home for the day.
Make sure to use a gentle brush with soft bristles and a fluoridated toothpaste (which helps to reintroduce strengthening minerals back into demineralized teeth, reversing the process that causes cavities). If you feel any extra bits of food stuck between your teeth, floss too.
Of course, the best thing to do is to snack less often and to snack smarter. Snacking is a tough habit to break, but your mouth will thank you. Think about why you snack. Are you bored? Are you stressed? Try to break the cycle of snacking by substituting other, healthier behaviors.
If you snack at work, take a quick walk or stretch a bit to get your blood flowing when the urge to snack strikes. If you’re snacking at home, make it a rule to not eat in front of the computer or while watching TV. Have your family or housemates hold you accountable! Many people snack because they think they’re hungry, but they’re actually thirsty, so try drinking a glass of water before reaching for a snack. Water is great because it helps to neutralize the acids in your mouth, and washes away extra food particles too. Take a look at this list of tips on curbing your snacking for ideas, too.
It is OK to snack occasionally. Just make sure you’re avoiding foods that are particularly bad for your dental health and try to snack on healthier foods.
Snack Foods to Avoid
I mentioned earlier that starchy foods make bad snacks, but they’re not the only offenders.
Some of the worst foods for your teeth include:
Citrus fruits like grapefruits are highly acidic.
Chewy, sticky, sugary candies are among the worst foods for your teeth.
Pickles are a low calorie food but are highly acidic.
Sugary, sweet, sticky, chewy, starchy, tangy. If any of these sound like the snacks you eat, you can probably make a smarter choice the next time you reach for a snack.
The Best Foods to Snack On
To satisfy your desire for a quick snack, look for foods that are low calorie, high in water and fiber, full of protein for energy, and that don’t have much sugar.
Snacks that fit these requirements are likely to make you feel fuller longer, making you less likely to want to snack again. And low sugar foods won’t lead to a post-sugar crash a few hours later.
There’s no one perfect snack that fits all of these requirements. But there are a few foods that make for good snacks that won’t damage your teeth.
Seaweed snacks are low calorie, very fibrous and taste great! If you’ve never heard of these before, give them a try. You can order them online or find them at Trader Joe’s or smaller Asian markets.
Fresh raw vegetables like carrots, zucchini and cucumbers make good snack choices, too. They’re high in fiber, water and important vitamins and nutrients! Just be careful to avoid biting down too hard on crunchy veggies!
Firm crispy fruits like apples and pears are good for an occasional snack. They’re lower in sugar than other fruits and high in fiber (especially if you leave the peel on). Add a bit of crunchy peanut or almond butter for protein.
Nuts like almonds, cashews and pistachios have a surprisingly high calorie count, but they can still make good snack foods. They’re high in protein which will help give you an energy boost. Just be careful not to overdo it and be careful to avoid biting on a piece of shell.
Remember: Snacks Aren’t Just Food
Sodas, sports drinks (like Gatorade), fruit juices, and sugary coffee drinks are all terrible for your teeth, too, especially if you’re sipping on them frequently throughout the day. That’s an acid bath every time you sip!
Instead, try to drink mostly water. You can use cucumbers or small pieces of lemon to infuse your water with a bit of flavor. Unsweetened coffee and tea are better than their sweetened counterparts, but they are highly acidic and can stain your teeth. Drinking through a straw can help reduce staining. Or, just drink any sweetened or acid drink all at once, in one sitting, along with a meal (so saliva can neutralize the acid effectively), and drink a little water afterwards.
Snacking once in a while isn’t the end of the world. The most important thing is to recognize when you’re snacking excessively and break out of that cycle. This goes double for when you’re snacking without thinking about it, like when you’re watching TV or working in front of a computer.
Snacking too often can contribute to cavities and tooth decay, as well as a variety of other health problems. Luckily, by avoiding sugary, salty snacks and enjoying low-sugar, high-fiber snacks, you can continue to enjoy snacking without risking your dental health.
Tell me about your favorite tooth-friendly snack foods in the comments below! And be sure to schedule your regular dental cleaning and exams!