Cutting down on sugar can have benefits all-round for your health. High-sugar diets have been linked to obesity and an increased risk of heart and kidney disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, as well as bone and joint problems like osteoporosis. These diets can impact your dental health, too.
The more sugar you consume in food and drink, the more you increase your risk of tooth decay and gum disease. Tooth decay is the most prevalent dental problem in Australia, experienced by more than 90% of adults at some point in their lives, and gum disease is one of the reasons behind tooth loss.
Oral health problems have been associated with diseases elsewhere in the body such as heart and lung infections; and pneumonia. Living with oral disease can also affect psychological wellbeing and quality of life.
Knowing what sugar does your teeth and how to help avoid its excessive consumption could help you make informed decisions.
Is sugar bad for teeth?
“The sugar reacts with the bacteria that lives in the mouth. It’s the by-product of this that causes decay, the acid that rots the teeth,” explains Dr Yassmin. “The more sugar you have, the more acid that’s produced.”
Basically, it’s not sugar itself that damages your teeth, but rather the bacteria living in your mouth that feed on it. These bacteria can convert the sugar into acids that can gradually dissolve the protective outer layer of your teeth (the enamel). This is the process of tooth decay (dental caries).
You might have tooth decay if any of your teeth feel painful, more sensitive to temperature or sensitive to pressure when biting down, or if you notice white, yellow or brown bands on your teeth close to the gum line.
If tooth decay isn’t managed in time, it can form cavities that can expose the soft inside of the tooth (the pulp), which may eventually become infected. Your dentist might recommend a filling or root canal treatment to help restore a damaged tooth and remove the infection. If a tooth is excessively decayed, it may have to be extracted to protect your other teeth.
If the bacteria on your teeth continue to thrive and they spread to the gum line, they can irritate or infect the gums, leading to gum disease (periodontal disease).
In its early stage (gingivitis), gum disease can be managed through good oral hygiene, but advanced gum disease typically requires professional dental treatment to help prevent permanent damage and tooth loss.
You might have gum disease if your gums look red or swollen, feel itchy, bleed when you brush your teeth, or you have bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth. It’s possible to have gum disease without any obvious warning signs as well, so it’s important that you have regular check-ups with your dentist so they have the chance to diagnose and help manage oral health problems before they progress.
Are we consuming too much sugar?
Sugar is naturally present in foods such as fruit. These natural sugars are less likely to affect your risk of tooth decay if you follow a good oral hygiene routine (note that your risk of dental disease depends on your own individual circumstances). But the added sugar in certain products can be a problem, especially when consumed in excess.
In certain snacks like fruit, the nutritional benefits often outweigh the unwanted effects of sugar, so completely cutting out all sugar from your diet is usually not the recommended option.
However, most Australians consume too much sugar. In 2014-15, Australians consumed 14 teaspoons of white sugar every day. Children and teenagers tend to have the most sugar in their diets, with almost three-quarters of 9-18-year-olds being over the recommended daily limit. It also tends to be a more prevalent trend among teenage boys, consuming an average of 92g every day.
Children are usually more vulnerable to tooth decay than adults, as their teeth are still developing and the enamel is softer and easier to damage.
Dr Yassmin also explains that we shouldn’t just be conscious of how much sugar we’re consuming, but how often. He notes that frequency of consumption is an important consideration.
“If you sat down and drank a two-litre bottle of fizzy drink in one sitting, that’s not good for your waistline, but it’s also not going to be good for your teeth. But what can be worse for your teeth is if you sipped the fizzy drink all throughout the day. That can be more detrimental than a one-time treat.”
What are the sugariest foods and drinks?
In 2011-12, the majority of sugar consumed in Australia (81%) was through energy-dense, low-nutrition foods and drinks. Some of the high-sugar foods and drinks include:
- soft drinks and energy drinks (19%)
- fruit and vegetable juices (13%)
- confectionery (8.7%)
- cakes and muffins (8.7%)
- cordial drinks (4.9%)
Sugar-sweetened drinks, particularly soft drinks and energy drinks, can be especially damaging to teeth. Not only can the bacteria in your mouth convert the sugars to produce acids, the drinks themselves often contain high acid content. Even ‘diet’ soft drinks that contain artificial sweeteners and fruit juices could be highly acidic.
When you eat or drink something with sugar, the resulting ‘acid attack’ on your teeth can cause your teeth to erode faster and accelerate the pace of dental disease. Each acid attack can last around 20 minutes. Having frequent sugary drinks or snacks throughout the day can cause more damage, as the process will repeat each time. Limiting these foods and drinks to meal times can help reduce the acid damage and give your teeth a better chance to recover.
How to protect your teeth from sugar
You can take steps to limit excessive sugar consumption by:
- checking the nutrition labels of all the food and drink you buy, limiting those high in sugar
- trying to avoid snacks and sugary drinks between meals – limit your frequency
- trying not eating or drinking before going to bed
- drinking water or rinsing your mouth after any snack or drink, especially if it is a sugary one
- using a straw or drinking quickly to help reduce exposure of your teeth to sugary drinks.
Irrespective of how healthy your diet is, you should also follow good oral hygiene to help reduce bacteria and plaque in your mouth. This can help lower your risk of tooth decay and other problems. Dentists recommend:
- brushing your teeth twice a day, for two minutes each time, preferably using fluoride toothpaste
- flossing once a day to remove food and bacteria from between your teeth
- drinking water throughout the day, preferably fluoridated tap water
- not smoking or drinking excessive alcohol
- regular dental visits.
Questions about your oral health or hygiene? Has it been a long time since you’ve had a dental check-up or hygiene appointment? We can help! Find your local Bupa-owned dentist.