10 Foods Your Dentist Wishes You'd Quit

Even some seemingly innocuous foods can crack, erode or otherwise damage teeth. Learn the top foods dentists say to avoid in order to preserve those pearly whites and keep you smiling.

By: Madhu Puri

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Maintaining a Healthy Mouth

If you need more reason to take care of your teeth, other than just the chance to show off that gorgeous smile, consider this: Research shows that good oral health is key to overall health and can affect a person's risk for everything from diabetes to heart disease. So we asked dentists what foods and drinks they tell their patients to avoid for optimal oral health.

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Granola Bars

"Although we may feel virtuous when we eat granola bars, because they have nutritional value, they represent the same risk to our teeth as candies," says Yale Kroll, D.D.S., a New York City-based periodontist. "I have seen many patients with a sudden increase in tooth decay, and when asked they report that instead of eating a proper lunch, they snack on granola bars or power bars." Why are these bars the culprit? Many have a high sugar content, and trendier varieties also have a sticky consistency. "It's better to snack on fresh fruit or dairy," Kroll says.

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Water with Lemon

If you’re hydrating with a squeeze of lemon in your water, you might as well be drinking lemonade. Highly acidic beverages will erode tooth enamel. “We’re finding it’s not just the food itself, it’s the frequency with which your teeth are exposed to that food,” says Kim Harms, D.D.S., a Minneapolis-based dentist and national spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “We have a slogan: Sip all day, risk decay,” she says. If you must drink your water with lemon in it, Harms advises doing so as part of a meal, to help remove the acid.

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Coffee with Milk or Cream

It may seem that all the recent research about coffee touts its health benefits. But by adding in milk, cream or sugar you counter those health perks and put your teeth at risk. "Unfortunately, cream increases the sugar content," Harms says. Constantly coating your teeth with sugar feeds bacteria in your mouth, which can encourage cavities. Drinking coffee black is best for mouth health (Harms advises using a whitening toothpaste to avoid stains); if you don't, limit yourself to one cup with cream per day. You can also try green teas for a caffeine fix — the polyphenols actually fight sugar buildup.

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Sticky, sugary foods like caramel and taffy work like a jackhammer to drill bacteria down into our teeth. When bacteria in our mouths feed off sugars we ingest, they produce an acid that over time bores little holes into our enamel. Once that happens, the surface of the teeth become demineralized or rough and more prone to dental problems. When it comes to sugar cravings, you're much better off going for chocolate, since its melting quality allows saliva to easily wash it off our teeth.

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Not only has it been proven that alcohol can increase your risk of mouth cancer, but it's also terrible for your teeth. "Alcohol is dehydrating," says Sally Cram, D.D.S., a periodontist in Washington, D.C., and national spokesperson for the American Dental Association. "It reduces your salivary flow, making you more susceptible to periodontal disease." That glass of wine each day isn't going to be your downfall, though: it's heavy drinking that's really drying. If you do find yourself drinking more than a glass or two daily, couple it with plenty of water to increase hydration.

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Soft Drinks

Soda hits you with a double dose of the bad stuff: sugar and acid. Some soft drinks also contain phosphoric acid, which leads to dental erosion even at low levels. "Have you ever put a penny in a cup of cola?" asks Kroll. Now imagine the effects of those acids on your teeth. If you think brushing immediately after drinking soda will help, think again. "It's actually bad, because you are abrading the tooth with a brush right after the surface has been softened by acidic liquid." In this case, it's just best to avoid soft drinks altogether.

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"I see a lot of people in my office with broken teeth from chewing on ice," Cram says. Ice is a crystal, and it turns out that the enamel on our teeth is made of crystalline — rub the two together and one is eventually going to break. The upside to ice is that water will help wash away other decayers, so let those cubes melt in your mouth instead of chewing on them.

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Popcorn & Chips

Crunchy foods like potato chips inevitably turn into sugars (bad), and they also get stuck in between our teeth. Popcorn is even worse. "I see gum infections from popcorn," Cram says. "The little hulls get stuck under your teeth, and it's really hard to get them out with brushing or flossing." So even if you are flossing every day, you're still at risk of having bacteria deep down in your teeth if you regularly snack on chips or popcorn.

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Dried Fruit

Though dried fruit is certainly a better option than candy when it comes to our overall health, dehydrated fruits are, sadly, not much better for our dental health. The sticky, sugary qualities of dried fruit have the same effects on our teeth as caramels or gummy candies. The good news is it takes about 24 hours for bacteria to form. "If you brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, floss once a day and visit your dentist on a regular basis, you can take care of a cavity before it turns into a root canal," Harms says.

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Hard Candies & Breath Mints

All the dentists we spoke with agree that hard candies are the worst for your teeth — the sugars erode enamel, while the crunch can break your tooth. Bet you didn't think of breath mints as hard candies, right? As we get older, our mouths become drier, leading to bad breath. "I've seen a lot of seniors with tooth erosion from breath mints," Harms says. As an alternative, she suggests sugar-free gum, which will combat harsh breath and increase saliva.

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