My own story reads like a scene from a dental horror flick: After one year as a brushing-twice-a-day raw vegan, I found myself propped back in the dentist chair, listening to the hygienist tally up the 16 cavities that had suddenly appeared in my mouth.
I couldn’t blame old age; I was still in my teens. I couldn’t blame a change in oral hygiene; if anything, I’d become more diligent about flossing. And I couldn’t blame my previous diet—because I’d only had one other cavity in my whole life, even when eating refined sugar and other tooth-wrecking monstrosities. The only change in my lifestyle was when I became a raw vegan.
Seven years later, my mouth is in good shape again, but my initial experience was far from unique. Dental woes are the proverbial elephant in the raw-food room—the one health issue that frequently declines rather than improves on an uncooked diet. This is apparent not just anecdotally, but also scientifically: Of the sparse studies conducted on raw foodists, most have shown raw vegans to be amazingly prone to dental damage, experiencing almost twice as much severe erosion as the rest of the population.
Fortunately, eating raw doesn’t have to be a one-way ticket to Dentureville. Taking some precautions and ensuring adequate nutrition can help you to keep your pearly whites both pearly and white, without forgoing the other perks brought by a raw food diet.
The Fantastic Trio: Vitamins K2, D, and A
Calcium gets lauded as a dental superstar, but it won’t do diddly squat if your body can’t deposit it in the right places. That’s where the fat-soluble vitamins K2, D, and A come into play. Vitamin K2 is crucial for helping the calcium you eat to end up back in your teeth; vitamin D improves intestinal absorption of calcium; and vitamin A plays a key role in bone and tooth formation. Together, these nutrients work synergistically to decay-proof your mouth—and their combined effects can be powerful enough to actually reverse cavities and erosion.
So where do you get these critical nutrients?
- Vitamin K2: This sucker is hard to come by if you’re a vegan. The best source is natto, a type of fermented soy product. But if you’re dedicated to raw or can’t stomach globs of chunky, slimy beans (I guess it’s an acquired taste), the only other edible options are hard cheeses, egg yolks, grass-fed butter, and organ meats. If these foods are also a no-go on your menu, opt for a supplement. Even if you’re not a fan of pills (I’m not either), this is one pill you will be glad you took. After speaking with dozens of people who’ve turned their dental health around by supplementing with K2, I’m convinced that this is the missing piece in the dental health paradox for raw foodists.
- Vitamin D: Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine. If you’re lucky enough to live in the tropics, basking in the sun everyday should be adequate enough to keep your vitamin D levels high. But if you live at a far northern latitude, your body might not be making enough vitamin D for optimal health—especially during the winter. So unless you’re cozied up near the equator, a vitamin D supplement (preferably in the form of D3 rather than D2) is your best bet.
- Vitamin A: Although the two are commonly confused, beta carotene—the stuff that gives carrots and sweet potatoes their lovely blushed-orange hue—is not the same thing as vitamin A, which is only found in animal foods. Beta carotene is a provitamin, which means that your body has to convert it before it can really be used. Although most people have no problem making that conversion (and can therefore get plenty of this nutrient from fruits and vegetables), some people—including children and anyone with thyroid disorders or diabetes—may need a source of pre-formed vitamin A in order to stay healthy. Sources of beta carotene include orange-colored fruits and vegetables as well as leafy greens; eating these foods with a source of fat increases absorption significantly. Sources of vitamin A in the form of retinol include egg yolks, milk, and liver.
Protect Your Teeth From an Acid Bath
Apart from nutrition, direct exposure to acids can harm your chompers. Vinegar is a common, but highly acidic, raw condiment; and even when ripe, some fruits like grapes, berries, tomatoes, apples, and citrus have a very low pH—making them capable of eroding enamel the moment they hit your teeth. Try keeping these foods to a minimum, especially if you notice tooth sensitivity after eating them. But if you do end up chowing down on some not-quite-ripe oranges or dousing a salad with vinegar, you can lessen the damage by doing the following:
Rinse your mouth out with water immediately after eating to clear away the residue. If possible, try swishing with a water/baking soda mixture—the high pH of the baking soda will neutralize the acids in your mouth.
Avoid brushing your teeth following an acidic meal. It sounds counterintuitive, but this is important. Until your saliva has a chance to work its remineralizing magic, your enamel will be softer than usual—and scrubbing with harsh bristles will only cause more erosion.
Fresh is Best
Dried fruit and dehydrated treats can spell trouble for dental health, especially if they make up a large portion of your diet. Dried fruit is particularly troublesome because it gets crammed in the hard-to-reach spots between your teeth, providing a sugary feast for bacteria—and creating the perfect habitat where cavities may form. As much as possible, stick with fresh, water-rich foods, and be sure to floss after eating anything dry and sticky.
Up the Greens
Green leafy vegetables are typically the highest source of enamel-building minerals in a raw food diet, and skimping on them can lead to a major dental health crash once your body’s reserves dip too low. Don’t be fooled by the short-term success of folks attempting strict fruitarianism—in the long haul, good teeth are the exception rather than the rule on such a diet, and greens play a vital role in covering your mineral bases. Darker vegetables like kale and chard tend to be richer in nutrients than light-colored ones like iceberg lettuce; and eating your greens with a source of fat (such as avocado) can boost your body’s absorption of the nutritional goodness.
Don’t Forgo Hygiene
Just because you’re eating natural foods doesn’t mean that you should toss your floss and toothbrush by the wayside. Even with a good diet, dental hygiene can greatly improve your odds of keeping a bright, healthy smile—and regular dentist visits can help to scrub away the staining that sometimes occurs from eating brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
If you’re a raw foodist, you already know how important an asset your mouth is. Don’t wait until you’re experiencing problems (or staring down a mountain of dental bills) to take action: Be proactive, feed your teeth the nutrients they need, and then enjoy the benefits of raw foods without worrying about the future of your oral health.
Denise Minger writes about Raw Food on her blog Raw Food SOS!
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