What Elite Athletes Can Teach Us About Oral Health

Whether we’re aiming to have a trim waistline through a nutritious diet and regular exercise, or keep our smiles in tip-top condition with healthy dental hygiene habits, in order to stay in good health we need to have discipline

Few people are better examples of personal discipline than Olympic athletes. They require more than coordination and skill—they also must be strict about their training and how they fuel their bodies. It stands to reason then that the same personality traits it takes to succeed in sports would also help elite athletes have superior oral health. If anyone has the self-discipline to brush, floss, and eat a healthy diet it would be athletes, right?

This is true. In fact, a recent study of 352 Olympic and professional athletes showed they have much better oral health habits than most adults, yet 49% had untreated tooth decay and the majority showed signs of gum inflammation, the first stage of gum disease. Many also reported that the poor condition of their teeth was having a negative impact on their athletic performance.

So what gives? If highly-disciplined athletes who eat a balanced diet and practice healthy dental hygiene habits have more decay than the average person, what can parents and coaches do to help young athletes change habits that have a negative impact on their health and performance on the field?

We know that oral health can have a significant impact on overall health, including the heart and lungs as well as systemic inflammation—all of which can have an effect on athletic performance.

As student athletes prepare for a fall season of sports, they can learn a lot about elite athletes and how their diet and hygiene habits could be impacting their oral health. 

If 94% of elite athletes are brushing at least twice daily, and flossing daily at twice the rate of the average person—yet still have higher rates of tooth decay, we must take a closer look at their diets. It turns out that what they’re eating at mealtimes isn’t the problem, but rather what they’re consuming while they train and play that could be the issue.

Athletes are more likely to consume sports drinks, and sticky energy gels and bars. Researchers think this could be the culprit and are conducting more studies to verify this theory, so let’s take a look at these popular “healthy” products and consider how they affect oral health.

Sports Drinks

Young athletes often buy into the marketing message that sports drinks will improve their performance and endurance thanks to “healthy” electrolytes. But a closer look at the nutrition label on one of the most popular sports drinks shows that a 20 oz. serving contains 34 grams of sugar—that’s eight and a half teaspoons! In fact, after water, sugar is the main ingredient, followed by citric acid. Both of these ingredients have a significant negative impact on oral health.

Your mouth is home to billions of microbes. Some are necessary to help break down your food and protect against pathogens. Others secrete acid that eats away at your tooth enamel—the hard, protective outer layer on your tooth—and causes inflammation in your gums. These microbes love one thing: sugar. The more sugar you consume, the more they multiply and wreak havoc on your oral health. The citric acid in sports beverages and some juices also deteriorates enamel, so these sports drinks pack a double-whammy to your oral health.

Healthy alternatives: The “electrolytes” these beverages are supposed to provide are simply sodium and potassium, minerals that are easily replenished with bananas and sodium-rich vegetables like broccoli, apples, celery, carrots and other root vegetables. Other alternatives include sugar-free sports drinks. They may still have citric acid so be sure to rinse your mouth with water after. Or simply fill your water bottle with tap water to reap the benefits of fluoride, which helps protect your tooth enamel instead of attacking it.

Energy Gels

High endurance athletes including marathon runners and long-distance cyclists often use energy gels to get an energy boost after about 90 minutes of intense exercise. Simply put, they’re liquid carbs made up mostly of simple sugars—the kind that cavity-causing bacteria love to feed on!—in addition to caffeine. Although most kids’ sports don’t require this kind of refueling, young athletes could be tempted to use energy gels to be more like the endurance sports stars they admire. They’re simply not worth the damage they can do to their teeth.

Healthy alternatives: Pouches of pureed fruit or baby food would be better (and cheaper) options. Just be sure to drink water afterwards, swishing to wash away any lingering sugars and rehydrating the mouth.

Granola Bars and Dried Fruit

It’s tempting to reach for these so-called “healthy” snacks for an energy boost before or after a game, but when you consider the sugar content of granola bars there are MUCH better options. Most granola bars are not only high in sugar, but the sugars come in the form of sticky liquids that hold them together, and usually contain dried fruits that stick like glue to teeth.

Healthy alternatives: You’re better off reaching for a handful of almonds, sunflower seeds and some dark chocolate, which contains polyphenols that help your mouth fight harmful bacteria. Whole fruits like bananas, apples, peaches and apricots are nutritious, portable and actually help clean your teeth by stimulating the production of saliva.

Speaking of saliva…

It’s important to drink water during sports not only to protect your body from dehydration but also to protect your smile from dry mouth. Intensive activity leads to mouth-breathing and dry mouth. Saliva plays an important role in fighting decay-causing bacteria and protecting tooth enamel from erosion. Staying hydrated before, during, and after exercise with fluoridated water will help keep your mouth healthy and your body in tip-top shape!

Dark cloud