Last week, I went to a new dentist bracing myself for bad news. Even though thousands of dollars invested in braces, retainers, and whitening products had produced generally good-looking pearly whites, my teeth were covertly plotting against me. A war was being waged in the dark reaches of my mouth. First there were the sealants (which apparently didn’t seal anything out); then came five fillings over the course of last year; and finally I was prescribed a new nightly regimen including two full minutes with an electric toothbrush, followed by a thorough flossing, another round of brushing with prescription-grade fluoride toothpaste, and a night guard to protect my teeth from grinding.

After diligently adhering to this ritual every night, I felt that I was a model dental patient, and yet I suspected that my teeth would prove otherwise. As soon as I opened my mouth, the dentist complimented me on my “beautiful” teeth, but the praise ended there when he discovered what lay beneath the surface. Probing my molars, lo and behold, the dentist uncovered yet another cavity. I immediately launched into a sob story about my painstaking brushing and flossing habits. My fiance flosses once a week if at all (though he might deny that) and has never had a single cavity in his lifetime. Were my teeth too soft or blighted with too many deep grooves, or were they simply cursed?

The dentist agreed that six fillings in two years would be high even for someone with low dental hygiene. Then he asked, “Do you drink soda?” I responded, honestly, that I used to drink about 20 ounces of soda a day. However, in my defense, I severely cut back on my soda intake since making a New Year’s resolution to kick my habit(which, as with all resolutions, hasn’t gone exactly as planned). More importantly, the cola I’ve been consuming is diet, which does not coat the teeth in sugar. The dentist shook his head, telling me that we just identified the culprit for my mouthful of cavities. As it turns out, sugar is the lesser of two evils in soda.

Enamel is the thin, outer layer of hard tissue that helps maintain the tooth’s shape and structure and protects it from wearing down. Its greatest enemy is acid. Soft drinks are just one group among a slew of beverages which expose the mouth to high levels of acid that can trigger tooth erosion. Fruit juice and sports drinks certainly sound healthier than soda, but they are loaded with tooth-eroding citric, malic, and phosphoric acids. Even yogurt and wine can be harmful thanks to lactic acid and tartaric acid. These acids eat away at the tooth’s hard enamel coating and trickle into the bone-like material at the core, irreversibly softening and weakening the tooth structure.

The results of tooth erosion include hypersensitivity, increased likelihood of decay, and loss of whiteness, since the enamel is semi-translucent and acquires stains from dark substances over time. Interestingly, teeth-whitening products, often maligned for eating away enamel, are far safer for teeth than corrosive drinks. Examining teeth through a microscope that shows extensive surface detail, researchers at the University of Rochester found that orange juice decreased enamel hardness by a whopping 84 percent. Meanwhile, a solution of 6 percent hydrogen peroxide, common among whitening products, did not cause any noteworthy change in surface enamel.

In a study published in a 2009 issue of ScienceDaily, researchers found that after submerging cow teeth samples in a sport’s drink for up to 90 minutes (which mimics the effects that sipping sports drinks over the course of a day would have on human teeth), the teeth displayed a significant amount of erosion and softening. It is estimated that this “erosive tooth wear” condition caused by acidic drinks affects one in fifteen Americans, accelerating the wear of the tooth and the onset of tooth decay. Apparently, I am the one out of fifteen.

After doing some research, I discovered why I have been more susceptible to tooth erosion and decay. When I drink a soda, I savor every last sip, slowly enjoying the rush of carbonation and caffeine. A can of Diet Coke typically lasts me a full half hour, which according to studies, is very, very bad. The longer teeth are in contact with acidic drinks, the more severe erosion will be. It is much better to drink quickly, and preferably through a straw. An article in ScienceDaily sheds light on why prolonged consumption of acidic drinks is so detrimental. Who knew there was a right and a wrong way to drink soda?

Of course, one of the lessons here is that drinking soda is overall just plain bad. No good can come from it. Besides the fact that soda wears away the teeth and offers no nutritional value, it is also linked to health risks and weight gain. But I am in no place to preach about quitting soda cold turkey (since the temptation has proven too strong for me thus far), and the same goes for other acidic drinks like fruit juice and Gatorade. However, there are some precautions you can take to preserve the integrity of your teeth and keep them looking young and healthy.

Brushing twice daily with a fluoride-enriched or remineralizing toothpaste may help slow down the erosion process and help to re-harden soft enamel, but it’s critical to not ingest the substance since it can be toxic if swallowed consistently. And those at risk for erosion should see a dentist for a professional fluoride treatment at least once a year. Brushing teeth immediately after consuming an acidic drink can actually compound the risk for tooth erosion, since softened enamel is particularly sensitive to the abrasive properties of toothpaste. That’s like further rubbing acid into the crevices of your teeth. Though the mere thought of combining a minty toothpaste with orange juice is gag-inducing, it can be beneficial to brush teeth with a fluoride paste up to 30 minutes before an acidic drink. Yes, it sounds backwards but science has borne out that it can help.

This 2008 article published by the Mayo Clinic suggests ways to minimize dental damage from acidic foods and drinks. Your mouth’s natural saliva helps neutralize acids. Therefore, it is good to accompany acidic drinks with a full meal or to follow up with sugar-free gum, an alkaline mouthwash, or milk to dilute the acid and increase salivary flow. The worst time to consume acidic drinks and foods is before bedtime, since saliva production comes to a standstill during sleep. Though lemon juice is sometimes used as a natural bleaching treatment for hair, swishing with lemon juice or applying citric fruit to your teeth is a cardinal sin for healthy tooth enamel.

I don’t know if soda should take all the blame for my tooth decay. I am also guilty of regularly eating foods that register high on the acidic scale (meaning a low pH). To name a few, highly acidic foods include beef, refined cereal, chocolate, artificial sweeteners, white flour pasta, pickles, vinegar, soy sauce, and jellies. An acidic diet can, over time, lead to an acidic environment within the body, which ultimately decreases the ability to absorb nutrients, lowers energy production in the cells, enables tumors to thrive, and makes the body more susceptible to disease. And that’s just the internal effects. An unbalanced pH level can also spawn signs of aging. To restore health, a diet should consist of only 20% acidic foods, and 80% alkaline foods, which include most raw vegetables, many organic grains and legumes, some nuts and seeds, and a few fruits. Here is one of many charts delineating acidic and alkaline foods.

So, really, the problem of consuming highly acidic products goes far beyond the mouth. Taking precautions to protect the teeth from erosion will, in turn, benefit the body as a whole. To keep your teeth in tip-top form, try to minimize their exposure to corrosive drinks. And never, ever drink soda like I once did before I knew better!