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Sugar and Dental Decay

Sugar and Dental Decay

by Dr Richard Chee 18/09/2018

The Australian Dental Association (ADA) released a national dental update in 2012 with statistics showing that tooth decay was Australia’s most common health problem. Tooth decay was found to be five times more common than Asthma in children. In adults, 57% of Australians can expect to develop tooth decay at some stage in their lives.

When a problem is as common as tooth decay it is a surprise that the causes and prevention are not taught more readily schools. Requests for more information on sugar and dental decay are common, so this blog will be useful!

So how does sugar cause tooth decay anyway?

Sugar by itself doesn’t decay your teeth. The entire process of tooth decay is a combination of factors: Sugar, tooth structure, natural plaque, acid-producing bacteria and time.

Basically, sugar + tooth + plaque/bacteria = tooth decay

As you can see, sugar is just one part of the equation for tooth decay to occur, but it is also the easiest part of the equation to remove and control.

Obviously we can’t remove all of our teeth (and we don’t want to), and we can never have a completely bacteria-free mouth (because we will always have natural bacteria in our digestive system). So where does the SUGAR come from and what can be done about it?

Sugar itself is commonly found in several forms in our diet: lactose (milk sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (refined sugar eg. white sugar) and glucose (the most basic sugar). All of these types of sugar found in our diet have the potential to cause tooth decay.

Common Sources of Sugar

Lactose – Milk, Yogurt, Ice Cream, Smoothies, Milkshakes.

Fructose – All fruit. Generally, the sweeter the fruit, the higher the sugar content. Pay particular attention to high sugar content fruits such as mangoes, grapes, lychees, cherries and figs.

Sucrose – The most concerning of all types of sugar. Refined and processed white/brown sugar used in lollies, cakes, biscuits, ice cream, chocolate, caramel, soft drinks.

Glucose – The basic sugar is a building block of all sugars, which includes complex carbohydrates including bread, flour, pasta, cereals, potatoes, honey.

Right now you’re probably thinking to yourself “well I can’t really eat anything, can I”? While it is true that most of the yummy things in our diet have some form of sugar or carbohydrate that can be converted to sugar, we won’t tell you to join the ‘Paleo Diet’ bandwagon just yet!

Of the types of sugar listed above, the one to watch out for is sucrose and is what we usually refer to as ‘sugar’. Sucrose itself is made up of both fructose (fruit sugar) and glucose (the most basic sugar) so when sucrose is broken down it is like consuming a double concentration of sugar! This is why sweets, lollies and soft drinks are the most likely to cause tooth decay (and cause weight gain).

In the battle against tooth decay and sugar, moderation is the key. This is why the following is recommended:

  • Limiting how much and how often we eat sweets and consume soft drinks;

  • Limiting snacking in between meals;

  • Drinking plenty of plain water throughout the day, after sweets and in between meals;

  • Keeping up with the basics (twice daily brushing and once a day flossing);

  • Regular 6-monthly examinations and cleaning, x-rays every two years.

FAQ’S regarding tooth decay

How does sugar decay the teeth?

The bacteria in your plaque ferments dietary sugar into acid. This acid ‘eats’ away at the tooth, weakening and damaging the teeth until a hole or ‘cavity’ forms. This can be visible on the top surfaces of the teeth, or invisible, with decay commonly forming in between the teeth or under the gums. The best way to disrupt the cycle of dental decay is a good daily brushing and flossing regime

Can I remove decay by brushing my teeth more often?

Unfortunately, once decay has well and truly started, it often isn’t possible to clean out the decay. This is because the microscopic bacteria has already progressed inside the tooth surface, think about trying to wipe off a crack or hole in your car windscreen!

What should I do if I suspect I have tooth decay, or if I am not sure?

Visit your dentist soon! Many people wait until a cavity or decay is too deep and they develop a toothache that can’t be solved with a simple filling! By the time a tooth is sore or sensitive, the nerve of the tooth has been affected, which often results in costly and time-consuming procedures to save the tooth and strengthen it such as root canal treatment. In the worst case scenario, a toothache will result in having to remove your tooth permanently. Don’t wait, a small filling is better than a big one!

Can my baby’s teeth decay before they erupt (come through)?

No, thankfully tooth decay requires a tooth surface combined with sugar and bacteria/plaque in order for decay to start. Your baby’s un-erupted teeth are safe under the gums. This doesn’t mean you can’t give their mouths the best start by building good oral health habits

If you have any questions or blog topics you would like to hear about, please contact the authors of this blog.

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