As a continuation of my series on cavities, today I want to talk about sugar. Many people know that sugar causes cavities. Sugar is the food that the bugs eat and is turned into acid which causes cavities. Sugar is to cavities what gas is to fire: it fuels cavities and allows them to cause more damage. The biggest and most obvious problem with stopping sugar is that it tastes great. When I meet patients who have suffered from many cavities over the years, the first question that I ask them is “Where is the sugar coming from?” While many people initially admit that they don't eat any candy or drink any soda, after a few minutes some small innocent habit like a little bit of sugar in coffee or eating dried fruit throughout the day becomes the apparent source of the problem. One of the most difficult parts though about monitoring what we eat is trying to limit the amount of sugar in our diets. Two things that people don't usually understand with cavities and sugar is that the frequency of sugar matters more than the amount of sugar and that sugar is found every in everything. However, there are some easy ways to limit the effect of our sugary foods on our teeth.
Cavities don't particularly care about how much sugar you eat but rather about how often you eat it. In fact, eating a huge bowl of ice cream in under five minutes does less damage to your teeth than sipping on lightly sweetened tea for the morning. The bugs only consume sugar for the first hour after you eat something whether it be a small piece of candy or a giant snowball. What I find with my patients that suffer from constant cavities is that they are constantly snacking or sipping throughout the day. While this can be an effective way to keep your metabolism high as it supplies a constant stream of energy to your body, this also supplies a constant food source to the bugs in your mouth that cause cavities. Instead of bugs being able to hurt your teeth for 3 hours (after breakfast, lunch, and dinner), now they can affect your teeth for 6 to 9 hours throughout the day. One other less obvious source is the stickiness of food. Food like gummy bears and raisins (which do have a lot of sugar in them) stick to teeth and provide a constant source of sugar in the mouth.
Another unfortunate part of sugar is how prevalent it is in all the food we consume. Often sugar content on the packaging is given in grams instead of standard US measurements such as teaspoons so that we don't know how much sugar we are actually eating. As a reference, 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon of sugar. So when you drink a soda, you drink around 11 to 12 teaspoons of sugar which is why it tastes so good. Also, many foods have ingredients that while are not labeled as sucrose or fructose, easy convert into sugars that the bugs can eat. For example, starchy foods like chips are partially broken down in the mouth and turn into simple sugars that bacteria can eat. These foods have the added problem of generally being sticky as well which as mentioned before can cause further harm to your teeth. One best way to tell if a certain food is made from ingredients that bacteria can eat outside of reading the label is to notice if you have a bitter aftertaste a few minutes after eating the food. This bitter aftertaste is from the acid that the bacteria produce from eating those sugars.
To limit the effects of sugar, I recommend a few things. The most important part is to start reading labels to look at the sugar content. For people who need to eat small snacks throughout the day, switch over to protein-rich and fat-rich foods if you need the energy. For example, rather than eating chips, try lunch meat, cheese, or vegetables dipped in dressing. What I also recommend is drinking water after these meals to clean off the teeth. Much like water will dissolve sugar stuck to a pan, drinking water after eating food will rinse the sugar off the teeth. Finally, if you need something sugary, consider switching to xylitol sugar which comes from birch trees. I'll discuss xylitol in more depth in my next blog about protecting your teeth.
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I think we as a society are starting to realize the harmful effects of our love of sugar. We overall know that we should be limiting our sugar intake, but it's a difficult thing to do given how food manufacturers put it in everything. I think the first step is to start realizing what we are eating and then we can start changing our habits. Drinking water after eating these foods helps remove the sugar from your teeth and prevent the bacteria from eating the sugar. If you constantly get cavities, you should start a food journal to try to figure out what your sugar exposure is. If you need help, make sure to ask your dentist or your dental hygienist at your next appointment.