I recently heard someone say that most of the vegans she knows have bad breath (or as the medical world says, “halitosis”). I also remember seeing one guy online once say that his wife started complaining of his bad breath after he went vegan. Does any research exist to back up this claim that vegans have bad breath? Well, I did some research to find out.
So, do vegans have bad breath? Evidence suggests that vegans have less bad breath on average. Bad breath is exacerbated by eating sulfur-containing foods, including meat and cheese. Vegans who do have bad breath are likely having problems with specific foods, not cleaning their mouth enough, or having a dry mouth.
In this post, I’ll explain the various reasons a vegan diet can make your bad breath better or worse. I’ll also include practical tips for how to troubleshoot bad breath on a vegan diet.
Vegans and Bad Breath: What to Know
When I started hearing anecdotal accounts of vegan bad breath, I took notice. I asked my friends, “Have you heard of vegans having bad breath?” No one had heard of it.
I searched on PubMed for “vegan halitosis.” No results. I read a few blog posts about it, and I found contradictory, unhelpful information. I committed to digging deeper.
Here are the takeaway points from what I found:
• Halitosis (bad breath) is caused by sulfur gases (“Volatile Sulfur Compounds” or VSCs) in your mouth, specifically dihydrogen sulfide and methyl mercaptan.
• Those sulfur gases are produced by certain anaerobic bacteria eating sulfur-containing food particles. So reducing halitosis is about limiting those bacteria and/or those foods.
• Many of the sulfur-containing foods that can cause bad breath are animal foods—meats and cheeses. The problematic vegan foods include garlic and onion as top offenders.
• Eating high-fiber foods that cause you to chew your food well can increase saliva production—and having more saliva helps fight the over-proliferation of these bacteria.
• Anything else that dries out your mouth—such as coffee, breathing through your mouth, and toothpaste containing sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)—can potentially contribute to bad breath because saliva is oxygen-rich and therefore helps neutralize the anaerobic bacteria.
• The majority of the bacteria that cause bad breath are found at the back of the top of your tongue. So using a tongue scraper or brushing your tongue can help a lot with bad breath.
• Brushing your teeth with fluoridated toothpaste can also help. Mouthwashes don’t often work as well, although ones containing zinc or chlorine dioxide may help if needed.
• Zinc-containing foods like oatmeal, tofu, cashews, sunflower seeds, and garbanzo beans can also be a nice, natural way to help stop bad breath. Zinc binds with the smelly sulfur compounds to take ’em away.
• Just rinsing out your mouth with water after a meal can help, so there are fewer food particles for your bacteria to eat.
To sum it up in one long sentence: Vegans don’t have more bad breath on average—but if you do have bad breath as a vegan, then you might try cutting back on garlic and onions, use a tongue scraper daily, rinse and brush often, and then try a mouthwash containing zinc or chlorine dioxide if necessary.
A Vegan Diet Doesn’t Cause Bad Breath
If you check out Colgate’s website, they actually have an article titled “Why Vegetarians Don’t Have to Worry About Bad Breath.”
As they explain, protein-rich foods like meat and cheese that get stuck in/between your teeth attract the anaerobic bacteria that cause bad odor. Following a vegetarian diet or eating less meat can lead to less of this bad bacteria build-up.
Colgate specifically recommends limiting meat intake to twice a week as a maximum in order to reduce bad breath.
Another interesting source that supports a vegan diet to reduce halitosis is this study. A high-fiber diet was shown to reduce bad breath for hours after each meal, more than a low-fiber diet.
By their nature, vegan diets tend to be higher in fiber, as they often contain beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. In contrast, meat has no fiber.
Vegan Foods That Can Contribute to Bad Breath
Just because vegan diets don’t cause bad breath in general, that doesn’t mean every vegan food is equally in clear. Certain plant foods can still cause bad breath.
Onions and garlic are well-known examples of vegan foods that can lead to bad breath. This is supported by credible sources, as well as countless anecdotal reports.
Other plant foods high in sulfur could be worth watching out for, too. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are healthy, but they do contain sulfur that can result in smellier breath (and smellier gas, too, as I explained in my guide to stop vegan farting).
As mentioned above, coffee can also potentially exacerbate bad breath by drying out your mouth. It’s recommended to at least drink water along with your coffee to minimize the effect.
Eating a lot of sugar can also cause the over-proliferation of bacteria in your mouth, causing more sulfur gases and, therefore, bad breath.
I’ve also seen a lot of anecdotal reports that spicy foods like peppers and curries have caused problems for some vegans who experience bad breath. So those might be worth watching, too.
With any of these vegan problem foods, you don’t have to quit them 100% forever. You can try removing them from your diet and see if your breath odor improves. If it does, you can continue limiting those foods or just be extra careful to rinse and wash your mouth more after eating those foods.
Cleaning Your Mouth to Fix Bad Breath: Tongue Scrapers & More
Since the majority of the bacteria causing bad breath reside on your tongue, brushing or scraping your tongue can help reduce bad breath. It’s only a temporary measure since the bacteria can come right back—but most sources recommended it as part of the solution.
Here is a nice tongue scraper on Amazon. It’s a simple tool. You just drag it along the top of your tongue from back to front.
Don’t press down too hard when you’re tongue scraping—you could potential damage your taste buds. Just go gently.
Some people choose to brush their tongue instead of scraping. That can work, too. But it’s nice to have a tool designed exactly for the job. And tongue scrapers are pretty affordable!
Besides tongue cleaning, you want to be on top of your regular brushing and flossing to minimize bad breath. The standard recommendation is to brush twice a day, for two minutes each time. Flossing should be at least once per day.
Another thing to check is what toothpaste you’re using. Choosing a toothpaste without sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is preferable to avoid bad breath. This is because SLS can dry out your mouth. And as covered above, a dry mouth can lead to bad breath.
One Last Reason to Fix Your Bad Breath
If you’re a vegan (or anyone) struggling with bad breath, it’s not just a matter of embarrassment or inconvenience—bad breath can actually be linked to other health problems, too.
The same sulfur gases that give your breath a bad odor are also damaging to soft tissue in your mouth, and they can lead to periodontal disease (gum disease), which is associated with heart disease and other problems.
None of this is meant to scare you—tons of people have bad breath, so it’s not like someone with bad breath has a rare disease. It’s just some extra incentive to try some of the tips mentioned in this post to clear it up.
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).
2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.