11 Foods You Didn't Realize Were Hurting Your Gums

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

You are not doubt well aware of the importance of taking care of your teeth, but it’s easy to forget just how important it is to also protect your gums. There are a number of foods that can hurt your gums, leading to gingivitis and, if you’re not careful, a more severe condition called “periodontitis.” Gum health affects more than just oral health — gum disease has been linked to heart disease, as well as infertility — so it’s worth your while to keep your gums happy, healthy, and disease-free.

In general, the foods that negatively impact teeth also negatively impact gums. Gum disease is caused by plaque, the film of bacteria that coats the inside of your mouth and causes cavities in teeth. Good dental hygiene (i.e. brushing and flossing) disrupts the plaque in your mouth and keeps it from turning into tartar. However, certain foods can contribute to plaque buildup, triggering bacterial growth in the mouth that can lead to gum infection and tooth damage. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, “The bacteria in plaque … triggers an inflammatory response that causes the breakdown of the gums, bone, and other supporting structures of your teeth.” Yikes.

Gum inflammation may initially cause gingivitis, a fairly mild form of gum disease characterized by red, swollen gums that bleed easily. (If your gums bleed every time you floss, you may already be familiar with the condition.) Gingivitis is reversible if you treat it, but, unchecked, it can develop into periodontitis. Periodontitis causes tooth decay and loss, so, needless to say, you want to avoid it.

In general, you can support gum health with a balanced diet and regular flossing and brushing, but you may want to think twice about consuming these foods:

1. Soda

It should come as no surprise that soda is bad for your teeth and gums. Soda is high in acid and sugar, both of which are harmful to teeth. Acid is, well, acidic, and it breaks down tooth enamel, allowing bacteria to grow and, eventually, decay to set in. Sugar is just as bad — the bacteria in plaque love sugar, converting it to acid and leading to further tooth and gum damage. Caffeinated sodas are especially bad for gums, as caffeine can cause dry mouth (more on that, below).

2. Sport drinks

Sports drinks might seem healthier than sodas, but, when it comes to your oral health, they’re just as problematic. A study released in 2009 found that sports drinks can weaken tooth enamel due to their acid and sugar content. Kimberly Harms, DDS, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, explained to Health, “Sugar is bad, and acid is bad, but many of these [sports] drinks have both. The combination causes tooth decay.”

3. Fruit juice

Fruit juice contains some healthy vitamins, but it’s not great for oral health. Juice is high in sugar, and the bacteria in your mouth feeds on sugar to produce acid. Furthermore, many popular types of juice are highly acidic, especially citrus, cranberry, and tomato juices. To reduce the amount of acid you're consuming, try out apple, carrot, or peach juice.

4. Candy (especially sticky candy)

Candy is essentially pure sugar, so of course it is bad for your teeth and gums. Especially harmful, however, are sticky candies — things like caramel or gummy bears — because the candy grips onto your teeth and encourages bacterial growth. Lollipops are also a no-go, for a similar reason: When eating a lollipop, you keep it in your mouth for a long time, which gives bacteria plenty of time to go wild. The University of Rochester Medical Center recommends that if you are going to eat candy (which, let’s face it, we all do), you eat candy that won’t linger in the mouth. (It’s also a good idea to follow up any candy eating with a rinse of water.)

5. Dried fruit

Dried fruit can be a good source of vitamins and antioxidants, but it has drawbacks for your oral health, due to its high sugar content and often sticky texture. That doesn’t mean that you have to give up dried fruit if it's your favorite snack. Just be sure to rinse your mouth or brush your teeth after eating it.

6. Citrus fruits

Tasty though they may be, citrus fruits— including oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and tangerines — are very high in acid. Acid erodes tooth enamel and can lead to decay and gum disease.

7. Tomatoes

Tomatoes are acidic and therefore aren’t the best for your teeth and gums. When you’re eating acidic foods, from tomatoes to oranges, or sugary foods, it’s a good idea to eat them as part of a meal. That way, you’re consuming them (and thus exposing your teeth to them) over a brief time period, after which you can rinse out your mouth. What you don’t want to do is sip on tomato juice or lemon water all day, exposing your teeth and gums to acid hour after hour.

8. White bread, chips, and other starchy carbs.

White bread, pasta, and other starchy carbs are detrimental to your gums for a couple of reasons: First, simple carbs start converting to sugar very quickly, and, as you know, sugar is not the friend of gum health. Second, these foods become really sticky as you chew them, glomming on to all of the little nooks and crannies in your teeth and giving the bacteria in your mouth spaces to flourish.

9. Popcorn

Popcorn is yummy, but popcorn husks can easily get stuck in the space between the gum and tooth. Usually, it’s fairly easy to get the husk out with the aid of a toothbrush and floss, but a really entrenched popcorn husk can create a gum abscess, a painful bacterial infection surrounded by swollen, pus-filled tissue. (You're welcome for that mental image). Left untreated, a gum abscess can eventually harm your teeth and even lead to tooth loss.

10. Alcohol

Many of the various types of alcohol and cocktails can be sugary and acidic, which is problem enough, but booze presents a further impediment to gum health: Alcohol dries out the mouth, reducing the flow of saliva, which contains enamel-protecting proteins and minerals that make it one of your body’s natural tools for protecting the teeth and gums. If you have dry mouth, your teeth and gums are more susceptible to plaque buildup, tooth decay, and gum disease.

11. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages

Life alcohol, caffeine can inhibit saliva flow, leading to dry mouth, which, in turn, makes your gums and teeth more vulnerable to germs and damage.

The fact that certain food items are on this list doesn’t mean that you have to — or even that you should— give them up. Some of these foods offer health benefits, even if they do have the potential to compromise dental health. It’s good to be aware of how these things can affect your teeth and gums, and to follow this general rule of thumb: Eat a healthy, balanced diet, and practice good oral hygiene. That means brushing twice a day and flossing at least once. And if you do eat these foods, follow them up with brushing your teeth, or at least thoroughly rinsing with water, UNLESS you’ve just eaten something acidic. In that case, rinse your mouth out with water, wait 30 minutes, and then brush. (The acid softens tooth enamel, and, if you brush too early, you can actually compromise your enamel further.)