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Has our modern diet destroyed our teeth?

When it comes to our health, most people agree we’re better off today than our ancient ancestors were.

After all, we have the benefits of antibiotics, vaccinations, and reliable access to food and shelter. However, evidence suggests those same ancestors of ours may have had better oral health than we have today, in part because our modern diet is bad for our teeth and gums. What are we eating today that is causing dental problems, and what can we do about it?

The carbohydrate effect

Studies show the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle had a dramatic impact on human health. Before agriculture, people subsisted mainly on fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and fermented foods in months when fresh produce was not available, supplemented by occasional meat after a successful hunt. But after the shift to agriculture, the human diet relied much more heavily on carbohydrates, which convert to sugar in the mouth and body.

The rise in dietary carbohydrates led to a change in the bacteria that live in our mouths, as well as a rise in instances of diet-related illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Acidic foods like soft drinks are also far more prevalent in the modern diet, and contribute to tooth decay.

How do we know?

Dental records are among the most valuable sources of data for forensic investigators because teeth can last long after flesh and bone have decayed. It is also possible to tie dental fossils to other cultural findings, like cooking utensils, to create a full picture of a lost civilization’s dietary habits.

Italy’s Pompeii is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD left the ruins of the Roman city remarkably well-preserved. Researchers have linked the excellent dental health of remains found in Pompei to a diet low in sugar. Residents of the city ate what has come to be known as the Mediterranean diet, rich in fresh produce, legumes, and healthy oils and meats, and low in red meat, dairy, and saturated fats.

How to maintain good oral health

One remarkable thing about our ancestors’ good oral health is that they didn’t have toothpaste, floss, or dentists. So, while our modern diet presents challenges to maintaining healthy teeth and gums, we have tools at our disposal to combat the damage caused by a diet high in carbohydrates and sugar.

Be sure to choose a dental insurance policy that covers at least two dental checkups per year. Stay current with cleanings and X-rays, follow your dentist’s instructions regarding at-home dental care, and be sure to brush twice a day and floss regularly.

You can also combat the negative effects of a high-carbohydrate diet by incorporating aspects of the Mediterranean diet into your routine. Snack on fresh fruits and vegetables rather than sweet or starchy foods. Choose lean meats, poultry, and fish. Avoid processed and acidic foods, and stay away from added sugar. By eating a bit more like those who came before us, you can maintain good oral health just like your forebears.

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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.

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