Top Foods That Cause Plaque—and Cavities

Medically reviewed in September 2021

I’m trying to teach my toddler how to brush her teeth. She only has seven teeth, and the “brushing” isn’t the most productive (if I turn away, she tries to brush the floor … yes, we throw away a lot of toothbrushes). However, it’s important to not only clean those baby teeth, but to get her started on healthy dental habits for life.

We all have bacteria in our mouths (gross-sounding but true), and they feed off of sugars from certain foods and drinks we consume. When that happens, especially if you don’t clean the sugars off of your teeth, the bacteria form a clear, sticky coating called plaque. While plaque creation itself is a normal process, if it isn’t removed while it’s still sticky/soft it becomes harder, making it more difficult to remove. Plaque and tartar (hardened plaque) release acids that can harm tooth enamel and provide a place for bacteria to hide – all of which over time leads to cavities.

You may brush and floss but not realize that in spite of that, some other eating habits are still damaging your teeth:  

1. The stickier the food, the longer it can cause damage. According to Praneetha Kumar, DMD, dentist at Powers Ferry Family Dentistry in Atlanta, the length of time teeth are exposed to sugars is an important factor for damage. That’s why sticky sweets (which will potentially adhere to the tooth or get stuck in small crevices and therefore leave the tooth exposed longer) are major culprits.

2. Crunchy/flaky foods can get trapped. When your dentist tells you to “stick to crunchy foods” for dental health, she’s referring to veggies like carrots, not chips and crackers. These starchy foods can break into small pieces that –-like the sticky candies -- get trapped between teeth and can harbor bacteria, leading to plaque and tooth decay.

3. Sugary drinks. Sugary drinks would include citrus fruit drinks. They may be good for the body, but not so much for the teeth. Acid exposure of all kinds can harm the tooth enamel, leading to decay. Unsweetened citrus fruits are a fantastic way to get vitamins, minerals and fiber. You don’t want to avoid them entirely, but be sure to drink water afterwards to rinse out the acid. Think you should brush right away? It’s counterintuitive, but Dr. Kumar states that after drinking acidic beverages, “brushing immediately with harsh, abrasive toothpaste or bristle brushes can cause more damage because enamel is porous right after drinking. It’s best to neutralize the acid first with water or sugar-free gum.”

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