Tooth decay on a vegan diet? My experience

I rarely write about my experiences with the vegan diet because I know it is such a controversial topic. I have previously shared my history with health and nutrition and my experience recovering my period on a vegan diet. Earlier this year I also posted an article Veganuary: Is a vegan diet best for the planet?. In that post, I mentioned that I no longer follow a vegan diet and my current thoughts about what an environmentally sustainable diet is. In this article, I want to speak about the risk of tooth decay on a vegan diet and share my experience.

I haven’t spoken in detail about the health issues I experienced in the 3 years I followed a vegan diet. This is mainly because I know it can create strong emotions in some people. I understand that those still in the paradigm that a vegan diet is optimal for humans can take it quite personally when others decide it isn’t right for them. I am not here to tell people what they should and shouldn’t eat. But I do want to share information and my experience to help people make informed decisions when it comes to nutrition and their health.

At some point, I will speak in depth about how a vegan diet impacted my health and the problems I experienced. If this is something that interests you, leave a comment below this post or drop me an email via the contact page. In this post however, I do want to speak about one specific problem I had and that is tooth decay on a vegan diet. I visited the dentist yesterday which is what has inspired this post. Really it has been a long time coming!

Tooth decay on a vegan diet: Sensitivity, receding gums and brown spots

Prior to adopting a plant-based diet, I never had any issues with my teeth. I had some slight crowding of my front teeth since childhood. Other wise I had zero cavities or teeth removed in my whole adult life. I looked after my teeth well, visited the dentist regularly and never had any reason to worry about my teeth. But after 3 years as a vegan and 2 years mostly plant-based, I started to have problems with my teeth. First with increased tooth sensitivity and feeling of weakness in my teeth and then the appearance of my teeth also started to change.

The left photo from 2019 shows the start of my tooth decay on a vegan diet after 3 years. You can already see the yellow colour of my teeth and the areas of de-mineralization at the bottom of my front teeth. On the right is my teeth in 2020 after getting braces to straighten them because I was self-conscious about my smile. I was still following a plant-based diet at that point although not fully vegan. I had added a small amount of animal products back into my diet a year prior but this photo was taken after a 2 month period of eating a high-carb vegan diet.

It was my boyfriend that first noticed a difference visually. He came back after being away for a couple of months and he straight away asked what was wrong with my teeth. I looked in the mirror and noticed that they had a slight transparent, almost greyish tinge to them. There was a small brown spot on one of my front teeth and a dark shadow between them. I also checked my back teeth with a mirror and saw lots of small pinholes in my molars. Overall, my teeth felt weak and sensitive to cold, heat and acidic foods.

As well as this, I had been told by my dentist a year previously that some of my gums had started to recede. He thought was a result of brushing too hard, which may be true. However now I’m not sure whether it was due to that or a result of nutritional deficiencies. I will come onto the nutritional deficiencies which can cause tooth decay on a vegan diet in a moment!

Tooth decay on a vegan diet: My approach to healing

I was pretty freaked out and worried that I had causes permanent damage to my teeth. However, we were in the middle of the COVID pandemic and also preparing to leave the UK and a stressful move from the UK to Greece so I let it slide. I did some research online about tooth decay on a vegan diet and found lots of people sharing their experience and advice. As a result, I made some small changes like changing my toothpaste and rinsing with salt water after every meal. I reduced the amount of acidic fruit I was eating but I wasn’t strict about it.

Once we were settled in our new place, I noticed that things were not getting better and I immediately vowed to change my diet. One of the arguments against veganism is that it can cause tooth decay and demineralisation. This is because it cuts out all dairy which contains minerals that support strong teeth and bones. Up until this point, I was so far into the vegan agenda that I believed dairy was acidic for the body and actually caused leaching of minerals from the teeth.

I believed that plant-based sources of calcium such as broccoli, kale and sesame seeds (tahini) were adequate and even optimal for humans. However, this experience finally shocked me into the decision to completely let go of the idea that a fully plant-based diet is best for health. So I started to experiment with adding in animal products to my diet on a more regular basis. I was already eating meat and fish a few times a week but I still avoided dairy thinking it was bad for my hormones and for the environment.

I was very closed minded and in the “vegan bubble”. By this I mean I was listening mainly to sources promoting a vegan or plant-based diet as the healthiest and most sustainable diet. As a yoga teacher, I also have many friends and colleagues who are vegetarian or vegan and so it felt very difficult to step outside of this world and I wondered whether I could still consider myself a true yogi if I was harming animals by eating them.

At this point though I was extremely concerned. I didn’t want my ethical ideals to lead to me becoming malnourished or losing my teeth! So I started drinking organic goats milk daily, added cheese back into my diet. I also started to take an Osteocare supplement which includes calcium and vitamin D, both good for building strong bones and teeth.

Healing tooth decay after a vegan diet: The results

I think anything that affects our physical appearance can be extremely scary. It is something that our ego struggles to deal with as our identity is so tied to how we look. I am all for separating our value and self-worth from appearance. But in this case I knew that my physical appearance was also sending a message about potential problems on the inside too. Tooth decay is a major sign of dietary imbalances or more serious health conditions.

Although it was very difficult emotionally and I had to do a lot of brain rewiring to let go of my previous beliefs. Although it was a challenge, I managed it and I began to see positive changes. Fortunately, I found plenty of research available about tooth decay on a vegan diet. As well as how to heal cavities naturally through a healthy diet which contains plenty of bio-available nutrients.

Surprisingly, after about 6 months on this new way of eating, the spot on my front tooth had completely disappeared. My teeth were noticeably whiter and the dark shadow and pinhole cavities were less noticable. Not only that, but the sensitivity was hugely reduced and my teeth felt stronger overall. I finally felt comfortable biting into an apple rather than chopping it into small pieces.

Yesterday I went to the dentist for a check up and clean and she told me that my teeth are in great health. He also said that the amount of plaque build up on my teeth was also much less than my previous visit. The pinhole cavities that had developed have now hardened and they no longer pose a problem. Unfortunately the gums that have receded will never grow back and I will have to manage them to make sure they don’t get any worse.

Did I just do the vegan diet wrong?

I know this is a very heavy topic but I think it’s necessary for me to share with anyone who is vegan and experiencing dental problems. Or for anyone who is considering adopting a vegan or plant-based diet. It is very important to be fully informed when making decisions for your health. Choosing to adopt a vegan diet is not something that should be taken lightly. According to the UK National Health Service:

“With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs. If you do not plan your diet properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients, such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12.”

Personally, I believe I was very careful with my diet as a vegan. I ate a good variety of foods and consumed fruit, vegetables, starches, beans, nuts and seeds as the base of my diet. I definitely ate more fruit and starchy carbs than the average person but I never went to extremes with my diet like some you see in the online world. For example, cutting out all fats or eating only one type of fruit for weeks at a time.

For a while I did fall into the trap of believing I need to detox to overcome my health issues and I had periods where I would attempt a raw vegan cleanse for a few days. But overall my diet was pretty balanced and I always tried to cover my nutritional bases. I did my research and ate specific foods to obtain nutrients that are harder to find in plant foods. This included foods such as fortified plant-milks for calcium and vitamin D, nutritional yeast for iron and vitamin B12 and hemp and flax seeds for omega-3 fatty acids.

I also took supplements to make sure I was getting what I needed. The problem is that just because a food in theory contains a certain amount of a nutrient, it doesn’t mean this is the amount that your body can absorb and utilise it. Depending on your personal health status and genetics, you may be less able to extract particular nutrients from foods. For example, nutrients found in plants are often in a less bio-available form than those in animal foods. Nutrients are also found up with fibre which can make it more difficult for your digestive system to process.

Tooth decay on a vegan diet: Summary

I am writing this post not to say that no one should ever follow a plant-based diet. Neither am I saying that veganism always causes tooth decay. Rather I want to shine a light and share a side of the story that is less often talked about. By no means am I saying that vegans are the only ones who suffer with dental problems. Of course there are plenty of omnivorous diets lacking in nutrients which lead to tooth decay and sensitivity.

I am just sharing my personal experience as I want to help people make informed decisions about their health. It’s important to understand the risks involved with restrictive diets of any kind. It’s easy to write off nutrition research as biased or funded my the animal agriculture industry. But I know I am not alone with experiencing health issues after eating a plant-based diet. If you have experienced similar problems with your teeth after following a vegan diet, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Over to you…

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