Health concerns about fat and cholesterol, among other reasons, have prompted many people to become vegetarians. While a vegetarian diet can have great overall health benefits, vegetarians need to be aware of how this lifestyle choice can affect their oral health. By eliminating certain food groups, vegetarians can risk missing out on some key nutrients that are essential for good oral health.
Should vegetarians be concerned about oral health?
Some adult vegetarians are knowledgeable about nutrition and maintain healthy diets by consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes to get the nutrients they need. But according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), an adult eating a vegetarian diet for a prolonged period of time can be at increased risk for periodontal (gum) disease from a lack of vitamin D and calcium.
A lack of vitamin D and calcium can cause teeth to soften over time, which makes them more susceptible to tooth decay and periodontal disease. However, vitamin D is produced naturally in the body with sun exposure, so deficiencies are rare. Deficiencies in calcium are more common but can be easily remedied with the proper diet.
The potential for nutritional deficiencies is greatest among children and teenagers who decide to become vegetarians without knowing enough about their nutritional needs. Also, some vegetarians – especially vegans, who do not consume any food of animal origin – are at risk for nutritional deficiencies in vitamin B2 and vitamin B12 as well as calcium and vitamin D, according to the AGD.
Balanced diet is the key — for everyone
According to the AGD, studies have shown that by eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, vegetarians can get all the nutrients they need. Adding vegetable margarines, soy milk, nutritional yeast and extra servings of green leafy vegetables to the diet will lessen the risk of vitamin deficiencies. A daily multivitamin is also a good way to supplement a vegetarian diet.
The AGD recommends that anyone considering adopting a vegetarian diet seek counseling from their physician or a nutritionist to learn about substituting foods to get all the necessary nutrients. And since diet is an important part of an individual’s medical history, patients should always inform their dentist if they adhere to vegetarian or other special diets.
A healthy diet and good oral health care habits are the best defense against problems with gums and teeth. Eating a balanced variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes will help vegetarians — and anyone — achieve a healthy, well-rounded diet and a healthy smile.