Does Our Diet Cause Bad Teeth?

Apparently poor dental health could be attributed to our modern diet, as today’s food tends to be a lot mushier than in ancient times. A recent conference, Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws: Implications for Dentistry and Orthodontics[1] in North Carolina put forward the suggestion that our diet is so radically different from our ancestors that numerous dental health problems, including cavities and crowded teeth are just about inevitable.

Their findings were based on studies of ancient teeth which tend to be well preserved. Archaeologists have been able to examine the teeth of not only our ancient ancestors, but also people who lived more recently, and who followed a hunter gatherer diet such as Kalahari Bushmen and the aboriginals. Around 13,000 years ago these hunter gatherers began to become farmers, and as a result food became much softer and didn’t need to be chewed so much. One of the effects is that the human jaw has become smaller, and more people suffer from overcrowding, and there is frequently little space for wisdom teeth to erupt.

Another modern problem is the prevalence of gum disease, but a study of 23 individuals from Taiwan, whose bones were dated from 1800 BC to 500 BC revealed virtually no signs of cavities or gum disease. It’s thought that an ancient diet containing large amounts of coarse grains, stringy vegetables and tough meat helped keep down plaque bacteria by acting as a natural toothbrush. The high incidence of tooth decay is also being put down to the fact that hunter gatherers evolved into farmers. As people started to consume more grains, this led to plaque bacteria building up in the mouth.

According to Dr Nigel Carter of the British Dental Health Foundation, today’s modern diet is so soft there isn’t any real need for teeth other than for speech and appearance. He’s also pointed out the huge effect the arrival of sugar has had on dental health. Sugar first became more widely available in the late 1800s, and since then it’s been downhill all the way for dental health.

This is all very well, but it’s difficult to see a way to substantially change today’s diet to help benefit dental health. Obviously eating a varied diet which is low in sugar will help, and research has shown children who learn these habits early on are far more likely to carry them on into adult hood.

A recent UK survey showed more than a third of people give little thought to their poor health and the relevance of their diet, and one in six eat whatever they want regardless of the effect it might have on their teeth [2]. The survey also found more than a quarter of people are well aware the foods they eat may be bad for their teeth, but choose to ignore this fact. Just one in six actively avoid foods they know are bad for their dental health.

1. Evolution of human teeth and jaws: implications for dentistry and orthodontics
2. National Smile Month 2012 survey: do you take your oral health into consideration with your diet? Research Now for Dental Health, 24th of January 2012.

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