Within seconds after we eat, bacteria in the mouth convert sugars into acids that can damage tooth enamel, leading to decay and cavities. We all know that we need to brush and floss to keep our teeth and gums healthy, but certain foods also can dilute acids, cleanse the teeth and reduce inflammation-the underlying cause of periodontal (gum) disease.

Important: By reducing gum disease, you also reduce your risk for other diseases that are linked to inflammation. These include heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.

Here are the best foods and beverages to keep your teeth and gums healthy...

  • Crunchy clean. Celery, apples and carrots are ideal for dental health. These and other crisp fruits and vegetables act like mini-toothbrushes. They scour off plaque, the bacteria-laden film that accumulates on teeth and beneath the gums. These foods also have a high water content, which dilutes oral acids.
  • Cheese after meals. The European tradition of serving cheese after meals is healthier for the mouth than after-meal desserts. Cheese neutralizes oral acids and helps remove bacteria. It stimulates the flow of saliva, which also has acid-neutralizing properties.

The calcium and phosphorus in cheese and other dairy foods remineralizes tooth enamel, making it stronger and more impervious to acids.

Bonus: The ratio of phosphorus and calcium in cheese is optimal for the absorption of fluoride, which helps prevent decay.

If you don't eat dairy: Use MI Paste (a 40-gram tube is available online for $29). It binds calcium and phosphate to tooth surfaces and makes teeth stronger. Apply twice daily after brushing with your regular toothpaste.

  • Tea. Both green and black teas contain polyphenols, antioxidants that reduce inflammation and may decrease the risk for periodontal disease.

Researchers in Japan found that people who drank one cup of green tea daily were less likely to develop periodontal disease than those who didn't drink tea.

  • Vitamin C-rich foods. The body uses vitamin C for the growth and repair of tissues. It's a necessary component of collagen, a protein that is one of the building blocks of cartilage, teeth and bones.

Why it matters: Patients with even mild periodontal disease can experience a weakening of tissues that support the teeth. In more advanced cases, periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss. A diet high in vitamin C can help repair and rebuild these tissues.

Vitamin C also is a potent antioxidant that can help counter the damaging effects of inflammation.

Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, peaches, papayas, strawberries, tomatoes, turnip greens, red and green peppers and broccoli.

If you are not getting enough vitamin C from food, consider taking a supplement. I recommend 500 milligrams (mg) daily.

Warning: Wait an hour after eating acidic foods to brush your teeth. If you brush after consuming acidic foods, such as tomato products, citrus fruits or vinegar or after taking a chewable vitamin C tablet—the toothbrush can wear away small amounts of enamel as it rubs the acid against your teeth. If you are drinking something acidic, such as fruit juice or soda, drink through a straw so the liquid bypasses tooth surfaces.

  • Garlic. Garlic contains diallyl sulfide, an antimicrobial compound that can reduce the development of tartar and plaque. A laboratory study published in The Journal of Food and Drug Analysis found that garlic extracts almost completely suppressed the growth of S. mutans, an acid-producing organism that is the main cause of cavities.

Other foods that contain diallyl sulfide include onions, chives, leeks and shallots.

  • Sugarless gum. Most people think that chewing gum is bad for the teeth. Not true. It's actually one of the most effective ways to prevent tooth decay and gum disease, particularly when you chew after meals.

Chewing gum greatly increases the flow of saliva, which washes away and neutralizes bacteria. Of course, it should always be sugarless.

  • Water. Americans consume enormous quantities of sugar, particularly in soft drinks, sports drinks and juices. We've seen an increase in eroded tooth enamel in recent years because of high sugar intake. Even diet soft drinks cause problems because, like all carbonated beverages, they're acidic.

Better: Drink plain water or water with a little added fresh lemon juice or orange juice. When you do drink sweetened beverages, rinse your mouth with water when you're finished.

Avoid candy, cookies, cakes, crackers, muffins, potato chips, french fries, pretzels, bananas and dried fruits. These provide a source of sugar that bacteria can use to produce acid.

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