Nutrition and Dental Health

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Having just undergone a root canal this past week, and also having read’s recent Article of the Week on diabetes and oral health, teeth have been on my mind. When people think about a healthy mouth, what usually comes to mind is brushing and flossing and going to the dentist for regular cleanings and checkups. All of that is important, of course. But what sometimes gets overlooked is how our food intake and nutrition status affect the health of our teeth and gums.

We know that people with diabetes can be prone to periodontal disease, which is sometimes referred to as the sixth complication of diabetes. Periodontal disease, if left untreated, can lead to serious problems, including tooth loss. Constant high blood glucose levels are the main culprit, and high blood glucose levels can also lead to other oral conditions, such as xerostomia (dry mouth) and candidiasis (oral yeast infection). The first line of defense for preventing these conditions is to aim for blood glucose levels in your target range (usually 90–130 mg/dl before meals and less than 160 mg/dl two hours after meals).


Dental caries, or cavities, are more common in children and adolescents, but can occur in adults as well. Eating or drinking sugary liquids or sticky, slow-to-dissolve carbohydrate foods (such as raisins and fruit drinks) are major culprits for cavities, but any food allowed to linger too long on the teeth can contribute to cavities. That’s why brushing after each meal is a good idea. If that’s not possible, chewing a piece of sugar-free gum can help clean the teeth, too.

Two key nutrients that can help fight periodontal disease are vitamin C and magnesium. In addition to raising blood glucose levels, diabetes can boost levels of inflammatory chemicals called interleukins that can increase the risk of periodontal disease. Both vitamin C and magnesium may counteract this effect by enhancing the body’s immune response to infection and inflammation. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, red peppers, and broccoli. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin C is 75 milligrams (mg) for women and 90 mg for men. Magnesium is found in foods such as whole grains, almonds, spinach, and beans. The RDA for magnesium is 320 mg for women and 420 mg for men.

Calcium and vitamin D are also vital for good dental health. A study done at Tufts University in 2003, originally designed to look at the effect of calcium and vitamin D on hip bone strength in adults, revealed that participants who took calcium and vitamin D supplements for three years were half as likely to lose teeth than those not taking supplements. Other studies have shown that both calcium and vitamin D not only help prevent bone and tooth loss, but they also play a role in reducing inflammation (which can lead to periodontal disease). Aim for between 1,000 and 1,200 mg of calcium and 400 to 600 International Units (IU) of vitamin D each day. Food sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, and pudding (choose nonfat or low-fat varieties), along with salmon, dark green vegetables, and calcium-fortified tofu. Vitamin D is found in fortified milk, eggs, fortified cereals, and salmon.

And if you enjoy tea, drink up. Studies show that the polyphenols (types of antioxidants) in tea may help prevent cavities and periodontal disease by preventing bacteria from sticking to your teeth. Tea may even lower the risk of developing cancerous oral lesions, too.

Don’t overlook the importance of eating a balanced diet. All nutrients are important for good oral health. An inadequate intake of protein, vitamins, and minerals can, of course, lead to any number of health problems, including tooth and gum disease.

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