It might be kind of hard to realize it, but each and every one of your teeth is a living organ. The hard enamel protects a softer tissue called dentin, which is made of miles of microscopic tubules. These tubules facilitate the flow of fluid into the tissue, helping to wash pathogens and their metabolic toxins away from the tooth.

Within this layer is the pulp, a soft inner core that contains blood vessels that supply nutrients to the tooth, nerves that vitalize the tooth and allow it to grow and sense stimuli, and connective tissues. Cells in the pulp continually help generate new dentin, into which nerves extend.

This is why your teeth get sensitive whenever there’s enamel loss. The dentin is exposed, and so are some nerve endings.

And how does enamel loss happen? It can come from over-brushing (too much, too hard, with too hard of bristles). It can result from acid reflux/GERD. Clenching or grinding can wear it away. But mostly, it’s caused by diet.

The Impact of What You Eat on Tooth Enamel

Part of the problem stems from eating too many fermentable carbs: carbs that can be broken down – fermented – by oral bacteria. This process produces acids that can damage enamel, leaving the tooth’s living tissues vulnerable to decay.

Fermentable carbs include simple sugars and other highly refined carbs. Think foods made with white flour, such as pasta, bread, crackers, dumplings, and the like, along with things like potato chips, cheese puffs, pretzels, fries and tots…. You get the idea. The digestive process starts in your mouth, and these kinds of foods are ultimately digested as sugar.

Sodas and other soft drinks are just as punishing – even zero-sugar versions because they can be so acidic. Juices are also a problem, delivering a one-two punch of acids and sugar. (True story: Grape juice actually contains more sugar than Coca-Cola while being only slightly less acidic.)

A broader problem with such foods is that they often wind up displacing healthy, nutrient-rich fare, so you don’t get enough of the nutrients that your teeth need for ongoing natural remineralization to keep the enamel strong. These include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and trace minerals, along with vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Ultra-Processed Foods & the Gut/Mouth Axis

ultra processed food falling into open mouthMost of these problem foods are also ultra-processed. If a product contains ingredients that you wouldn’t find in the typical well-stocked home kitchen, it’s likely ultra-processed. Fast food and most ready-made meals fall into this category, too. Not only do these foods tend to be loaded with fermentable carbs, lower in key nutrients, and full of artificial flavors, colors, additives, and preservatives; they also reduce microbial diversity in the gut – and you can’t have a healthy mouth without a healthy gut.

As mentioned, digestion starts in the mouth. As soon as you take a bite, your saliva and oral bacteria start to break it down. Once you swallow it, your gut finishes the job. If that consists primarily of ultra-processed food, however, there’s another consequence. Science has shown that these foods reduce bacterial diversity in the gut, which has been linked to poorer health.

Meantime, harmful oral bacteria are often found in the guts of people with gastrointestinal issues. Many digestive disorders, in turn, can affect dental health. It’s a two-way relationship. A healthy mouth depends on a healthy gut – enough that the relationship is referred to as the gut/mouth axis.

Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to 32 Health Problems

Simply eating fewer ultra-processed products and more home cooked meals made from whole and minimally processed ingredients is one of the best things you can do, nutritionally, to improve your oral health – not to mention your overall health, as new research in the BMJ powerfully shows.

To examine the evidence for the negative consequences of an ultra-processed diet, researchers analyzed 45 pooled meta-analyses from 14 previous reviews spanning the past three years and involving nearly 10 million people. (A pooled meta-analysis is a statistical technique that provides a better, more reliable estimate of the effect or relationship being studied by combining and analyzing the results from many separate studies on the same topic.)

As the Washington Post recently reported, the research team

found “convincing evidence” that higher ultra-processed food intake was associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death, a 48 to 53 percent higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders, and a 12 percent greater risk of Type 2 diabetes.

“Highly suggestive evidence” showed that ultra-processed diets were also associated with a 21% higher risk of death from any cause and a 40 to 66% higher risk of death related to heart problems, along with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and sleep issues. There was a 22% greater risk of depression.

In sum, the research team found a link between an ultra-processed diet and 32 different health problems – NOT including tooth decay or gum disease, even as gum disease has been independently linked to many of the 32 health problems they did look at.

Sure, these products might be tasty, but is that benefit really worth the cost?

Some helpful tips for shifting away from an ultra-processed diet to a healthier one