To know which foods are best for your teeth, consider what your ancestors ate before the dawn of toothbrushes.
Raw foods and whole grains have an abrasive quality that helps keep your teeth clean.
But the healthiest foods aren't always the easiest to eat for seniors who suffer from digestive issues or missing, broken or painful teeth. Often, people with chewing problems fall back on processed foods and on breads and pastas, leaving them full of sugar and carbohydrates.
"People will still say they are eating well if they have missing teeth or ill-fitting dentures," says Eric Hansen, a denturist at Northwest Dental Services in Bellingham. "But once you start asking what they're eating, you realize they're not getting enough vegetables or protein. They avoid things like meat or raw vegetables."
Fortunately, experts say there are plenty of ways to eat healthily, even with dental challenges.
WHAT NOT TO EAT
Sticky foods such as caramel, foods such as popcorn that wedge into gums, and foods with small seeds, like raspberries, are obvious choices to avoid if you have dental problems or gum disease.
Cindy Brinn, a dietician at St. Joseph hospital, says there are other, not-so-apparent foods that decay teeth and damage gums. For example, pretzels, breads, crackers and other white-flour foods can become a sticky substance in the mouth.
"Finely ground flour-based foods are like a powder that is going to hang out around your teeth," Brinn says.
Sugary foods, especially sodas and undiluted juice, also should be limited. Such liquid sugars feed gum-destroying bacteria if they aren't washed away by saliva or by brushing.
Brinn, who counsels many diabetic clients, says a tooth-healthy diet is even more important now that new links between diabetes and gum disease are being discovered.
WHAT TO EAT
The good news is that there are healthy foods available even if you're on a soft-food diet. For example, well-cooked vegetables retain most of their nutrition, especially if cooked in soups and stews, Brinn says.
Beans and lentils are among the best foods for everyone, regardless of problems with chewing. With their soft consistency, they provide loads of fiber and nutrients without feeling like you're gnawing your way through a salad bar.
People with chewing problems also can chop, grind or puree meats, and use sugar-free canned fruits and vegetables, which are softer than raw.
They also can use instant breakfast drinks to supplement their nutrition, according to the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. Still, people should brush afterward to remove decay-causing sugar from their teeth.
Did you know you can steep your way to healthy gums with a daily cup of green tea?
A study published last year in the Journal of Periodontology found that green tea drinkers had superior gum health. According to the study, for every cup of green tea consumed per day, there was a decrease in three indicators of periodontal disease among the 940 men in the study.
The benefits of green tea might be due to catechin, an antioxidant shown to reduce inflammation. Because periodontal disease is a chronic inflammatory illness, the antioxidant might interfere with the body's response to bacteria in the mouth, according to the study's authors.
Calcium doesn't just ward off osteoporosis. It also plays a vital role in gum health, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.
For seniors, that means getting the recommended daily dose of at least 1,200 milligrams. According to the academy, men and women who don't get enough calcium are almost twice as likely to have periodontal disease.
Researchers say calcium may reinforce the bone that supports teeth in the jaw, and maintains and repairs healthy tissues along the gum line.
Research also showed that people who didn't get at least 60 milligrams of vitamin C a day - the amount in one orange - were one-and-a-half times more likely to develop severe gingivitis as those who consumed three times the recommended amount. Gingivitis is a precursor to periodontal disease.
DENTURES NOT THE ANSWER
Eric Hansen, the denturist, says he spends many hours with people who complain about the cost of preserving their natural teeth and would rather just get dentures. He tries to convince them to do whatever they can to protect their teeth, especially those on the bottom.
When all teeth are removed from the bottom, bone loss over time makes a lower denture harder to keep in place, he says. The result is more difficulty chewing, and nutritional deficiencies that can come with poor eating habits.
Hansen says that when people lose all of their teeth and have both upper and lower dentures, their chewing ability is just 30 percent of normal. Keeping their natural teeth, using partials instead of full dentures, and even having implants, if they can afford it, preserves the underlying bone, which is vital for nutrition as people age, he says.
RECIPE FOR YOU: MINESTRONE
This nutrient-rich recipe for Three Bean Minestrone can be cooked until the vegetables are soft enough to be eaten by people with chewing problems.
Brinn adapted it from a recipe at the Northarvest Bean Growers Association website, beaninstitute.com.
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 cup each (cooked/canned & drained & rinsed) pinto beans, black beans,
kidney beans or great northern beans
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup Yukon gold potatoes, diced
2 zucchini, sliced
2 red tomatoes, diced
4 cups baby spinach
1/4 cabbage, sliced
2 chicken breasts cut into one-inch cubes
1 teaspoon ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In large stockpot over low heat, combine the olive oil and onions, garlic and diced chicken. Sauté until chicken is tender. Remove chicken to be added later. Add carrots and cook three minutes. Add celery, beans, chicken broth and cook for about 20 minutes.
Add diced potatoes, zucchini and cabbage and cook another 20 minutes. Add tomatoes, cover and cook at low for 30 minutes.
Add spinach and cooked chicken and pepper. Cook 5-10 minutes, until warm.
Serve with a few tablespoons of grated Parmesan.