I am desperate and don't know what to do. Since goind vegan I had 10 cavities and 1 root canal (when I was a "carnist" I had none) - I'm seriously considering going back, but I don't feel good about it. It's just that the cavities are expensive and stressfull, and I'm losing hope of ever getting better with my diet. Do you know what could be the cause? Any tips to avoid any more tooth decay?
I had 4 teeth removed for cavities and decay in my life even before I was a vegetarian. Many people on this planet will have some sort of dental surgery in their lifetime without ever being vegan or vegetarian. So it’s important to remember that dental health issues are not a problem disproportionately experienced by those who refuse to eat animal products, and that it’s entirely possible for your plant-based diet to be completely irrelevant to your recent dental health issues. Hear me out on this!
Correlation does not imply causation. I know this is hard to accept for some people - “I went vegan around the same time x started happening, so it CAN’T be a coincidence!” but coincidences DO happen. More frequently than we even perceive. There are a lot of coincidences in our lives that don’t catch our attention simply because we have no inclination to believe they are related in any way.
For example, here are some graphs that show two completely unrelated factors following an eerily identical pattern, like the rise and fall of per capita consumption of margarine lining up perfectly with the divorce rate in Maine. It would be funny at best to suggest that margarine consumption has anything to do with divorce. And we have no reason to suspect it does, especially when major news sites and corporations aren’t churning out stories like “Could margarine be the reason your marriage fell apart?” or Best-Selling authors writing books like “I Gave Up Margarine for My Marriage!”
In contrast, there are many who have invested political, economic, and social interest in suggesting that plant-based diets are overall less healthy and sustainable than animal-based diets. They rely on rogue correlation in order to fuel their beliefs. These factors surround us every day and make us more likely to suspect that veganism itself is the cause of our problems, rather than poor diet choices or neglecting our health in non-dietary ways.
That’s not to say that your diet definitely isn’t affecting your dental health. It’s just a statement to remind you that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions, or more specifically, instead of saying “veganism is the reason I’m having cavities, so I should stop being vegan”, you might want to say “I am not eating properly for my health, and I should change my dietary habits”. Your health declining does not make meat, milk, or eggs miracle foods that will fix all your problems. Here’s a list of things you may be doing or neglecting to do that are not directly related to your lack of animal product consumption:
- You are eating more sugar. If you’re drinking soda or fruit juices, that would be the first thing to reduce or eliminate from your diet. Other drinks, such as non-dairy milks, can also come packed with more sugar than necessary. If you drink non-dairy milk regularly, you may want to switch to unsweetened varieties, or choose a brand that has less added sugar than your current choice. Other sources of added sugar are baked goods, cereals, alcoholic drinks, and even non-sweets like condiments and frozen dinners. If you drink coffee or tea, you might want to switch to a sugar free sweetener.
- You are eating a lot of carbs. Carbohydrates break down into simple sugars. When these get stuck in your teeth, they attract bacteria eventually causing tooth decay. Some people, when switching to a vegetarian or fully plant-based diet, begin to eat more carbs in substitute of animal products, either knowingly or unknowingly. But being vegan doesn’t mean you have to eat a high-carb diet, and there are plenty of vegan recipes that can help you reduce how many carbs you’re eating.
- You are eating a highly acidic diet. When our body’s pH levels become too acidic, it uses its own stores of calcium in order to balance it out, so eating a highly acidic diet may be a contributing factor in dental decay. It’s hard to maintain a pH balanced diet since this isn’t something we normally think about - outside of acidic fruits such as citrus - and acid can come from surprising parts of our diet. Examples of non-vegan, highly acidic foods are beef, processed cheese (and other processed dairy products), seafood, pasteurized honey, egg whites, pork, and veal. Whether or not you stay vegan, while I hope you do, is ultimately up to you - but I want you to be informed regardless. There are just as many non-vegan high acidity foods as there are vegan ones, so whether or not you eat animals will not have a bearing on whether or not you can control the acidity in your diet. Beans, dried fruits, spinach, zucchini, coconut, and brown rice are some low acidity and high nutrient foods you may want to consider adding in higher quantity to your diet.
- You refuse to eat high sources of plant-based calcium. Lots of great vegan sources of calcium also happen to be foods that some people absolutely hate. Number one? Dark green, leafy vegetables. If you can’t remember the last time you had any dark green leafy vegetable - like spinach, kale, bok choy, okra, or even broccoli - you’ve been avoiding the number one dietary source of calcium. Take a look at some other vegan sources of calcium and see if you’ve been neglecting them in your diet overall.
- You are eating a lot of sodium. Sodium increases the amount of calcium lost in urine and higher dietary sodium is associated with lower bone density. People eating plant-based diets do not tend to have higher sodium levels than others, simply because the predominant sources of excess sodium in the average diet are prepared meats, cheeses, and frozen or prepared meals containing those ingredients. If you suspect that you might be eating more sodium than you should, here are some guidelines for a low-sodium diet.
An ideal plant-based diet for bones and teeth is one high in leafy greens, beans, nuts and seeds, with adequate sources of vitamin C for calcium absorption (so moderate consumption of fruits), as well as being low in added sugars, salt, processed carbohydrates, highly acidic foods, and alcohol. This diet is not only healthy for bone density but provides an overall healthful framework to base your dietary routine on.
Outside of your diet, brushing regularly, getting a new toothbrush every few months, flossing, drinking plenty of water, rinsing, and chewing sugar free gum can help aid in dental hygiene.
Being vegan won’t automatically make you healthy or ill, and neither will being non-vegan. We need to remember that our health is much more complex than these dietary boundaries, and that sometimes health complications can arise even in the most conscientious of people.
As a disclaimer, I’m not a dental hygienist or trained nutritionist. I’m not even the most health-conscientious person out there, and there are plenty of times where I’ll do something or eat something that isn’t healthy for me. I have a huge sweet tooth! But I firmly believe that everyone should have access to information that can keep our bodies healthy and happy, whether or not we use that information all the time. It’s up to every individual how much they decide to adhere to health recommendations.
And as a final note, neglecting to eat healthy or exercise every once in a while doesn’t make you a bad person. Getting sick doesn’t make you a bad vegan. Sometimes we need mental health days. Sometimes we are mentally suffering in ways that makes us neglect our physical health. Sometimes we get sick in ways we couldn’t have possibly predicted. We are only human, and are as flawed as we are unique.
I wish you the best of luck with your health, and hope this helps!