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Though you often hear people talk about “science” as kind of a single, solid body of fact, it’s actually a process and a way of understanding the world. Ideas are tested and retested. Evidence builds up – sometimes in support of a hypothesis, sometimes against – but until it reaches critical mass on one side or another, the mixed results of scientific research can sometimes seem confusing.

Consider a trio of studies published over the past several months on the long-observed relationship between oral health and obesity.

One study, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Dental Practice, found that obese children tended to have more cavities, though results varied according to socio-economic status. Parents’ income levels seemed to predict preventive oral health practices such as home hygiene and regular dental visits.

Another study – this, in PLoS ONE – came to a contrary conclusion, finding that Kuwaiti children who were obese actually had fewer cavities than their slender peers. No explanation was given for this surprising result.

The finding of an inverse obesity-dental decay relationship contradicts the obesity-sugar and the obesity-dental decay relationship hypotheses. Sugar is well recognized as necessary and sufficient for dental decay. Sugar is also hypothesized to be a leading co-factor in obesity. If the later hypothesis is true, one would expect dental decay to increase with obesity. This was not found. The reasons for this inverse relationship are not currently clear.

Then there was the research published in the European Archives of Paediatric Dentistry. This study found that while obese children don’t necessarily have a higher risk of tooth decay, they do seem to have a higher risk of dental erosion.

5411920162_852d19475c_bOf course, as enamel is lost and dentin is exposed, the affected teeth become much more vulnerable to decay.

Overall, though, the research generally supports some connection between obesity and caries (that’s the dentist’s term for cavities). And if you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. After all, the mouth is where eating begins, and the foods most prone to add to your fat stores – sugary, starchy, hyper-processed carbs – are the exact same foods that can lead to dental problems.

Some, of course, are more damaging than others. Soda may be one of the worst offenders, though fruit juice is not so much better. A single 12 ounce serving of pop can contain more than 50 grams of the stuff; juice-based drinks fall into the same range. (Tropicana Farmstand, for instance, contains just a half teaspoon less than a regular Coke.)

This sugar is the preferred fuel of the microbes that colonize into the tooth-coating biofilms we call “plaque.” The metabolic waste they produce is highly acidic, and that’s what ultimately damages teeth, making them vulnerable decay.

Add to that the phosphoric acid found in soda, and you get a real recipe for disaster.

But it’s not just soda that’s the problem. All highly processed carbs and sugars tend to stick to the teeth, especially along the gum line, feeding those oral pathogens, helping them to thrive.

These are also the kinds of foods that fuel chronic inflammation – a key player in both obesity and gum disease. Not only are they themselves triggering but they also often displace healthier foods from the diet, such as vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed meats and healthy fats such as omega 3s. In light of this, it’s not especially surprising that research has found obesity to be a predictor of periodontal disease.

That said, being obese doesn’t necessarily doom you to oral health problems – or vice versa. But the presence of both together does suggest that the reason may be shared triggers such as diet.

Even though there may not be a causal connection, healthy choices can impact both. This doesn’t mean that one solution exits, but changing your diet and exercising more are fantastic steps towards better oral, heart, and overall health.

For starters, instead of eating sugars, refined flours, and starches, fill your diet with:

  • Vegetables
  • Fresh fruits (not canned)
  • Natural fats from foods like like nuts, avocados, fish, and olive oil
  • Unprocessed meats (found in the meat aisle, not the deli)
  • Whole grains

Finally, remember to clean your teeth and gums regularly. No matter what you eat, your teeth need brushing at least twice a day and flossing once a day.

Image by Jacob Deatherage, via Flickr

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