When my wife and I were in the early stages of dating, she assumed that because I am a dentist, I probably wouldn’t eat sweets. We met around the holidays. She hesitated before deciding to give me a plate of homemade cookies, anticipating a non-genuine “thank -you.” However, they were (are still are) my favorite – the peanut butter ones with the chocolate kiss on top. Much to her surprise, I wholeheartedly thanked her. And, yes, I did rinse, brush and floss that night. (Just like you do before you come to see me.)
My point is, because I am a dentist, it doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy sweets now and again – just in moderation. This little phrase comes in handy in so many areas of our lives: work, exercise, Netflix watching – you get the jest. By and large, we Americans love our sweets – we sing about them, we use “sweetie” as a term of endearment. We add sugar to cereals, foo-foo coffee beverages, a bowl of naturally sweet strawberries. It’s getting a tad out of control, in my opinion. No wonder it is a tough additive to quit, because it's everywhere. Some studies show that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. (“Hard Habit to Break” by Chicago is floating through my head, but I digress.)
I’m not here to sound the alarm bell and scare you into cutting all sugar out of your diet because of what it’s doing to your teeth – but I will offer some guidance: Mindful eating is the ticket off the sugar high roller coaster. For some people, it may be an all or nothing situation. For others, partaking here and there satisfies the craving and keeps sugar indulgences in check. Figure out what works for you, personally.
Over-thinking this could also cause a spike in blood sugar. Therefore, rather than getting too clinical, I’d like to share a scenario that I frequently encounter at parties – which rarely faisl to include sugary treats. I often hear, “Can I have a can of root beer?” (My son enjoys pretending to be a ‘big guy’ when he drinks root beer.) I respond with a question, asking him whether he wants the can of soda or the brownie that’s already on his plate. (Three reasons for the question: 1) I don’t want to peel him off of the ceiling from his sugar high; 2) I have zero desire to try to put him to bed when he’s crashing; 3) I don’t want him to have a tummy troubles.) When our kids choose between enjoying a root beer or a brownie – they usually choose the brownie. I pose the question so they get the idea: a can of soda is the equivalent to having a dessert. After navigating the dessert buffet on their own as they get older, they realize that ‘Dear Old Dad’ may be onto something with his moderation suggestions. (A few post-party stomachaches serve as reminders as well.)
Sugar itself does not directly harm teeth, but it enables the two big culprits of tooth decay: bacteria and acids. The dentist in me will offer a reminder that the acids in sweetened drinks, such as soda pop (or ‘pop’ as Minnesotans say) are harmful to your teeth. There are lots of different kinds of bacteria living on and around your teeth. Bacteria is hungry for sugar – more so than your craving for a piece of chocolate after dinner. These bacteria feed on the sugar and generate a little bacteria commune, commonly referred to as plaque. The plaque allows bacteria to stay on the teeth longer, until eventually the bacteria make acids, which wear down the tooth enamel and cause cavities. Bacteria in the plaque produce a toxin that causes gingivitis. If left untreated, this may develop into periodontitis, causing bone and tissue loss around the teeth. So, if you are drinking pop on a daily basis, you may want to try to hop on the everything-in-moderation train.
Some of the most popular drinks, including soft drinks and fruit juices, are acidic and have been shown to make the teeth weaker. As the enamel on the tooth continues to wear, the inner layer, dentin, becomes exposed. This leads to pain and toothache(s), a condition referred to as dentin hypersensitivity. Sports and energy drinks may sound healthy-ish, but sugar is a top ingredient. The American Academy of Pediatrics says sports drinks can be helpful for young athletes engaged in prolonged, vigorous physical activities, but unnecessary in most cases. Before your next sip, check the label to make sure your drink of choice is low in sugar or drink water.
A naturally sweetened drink that is not harmful to your teeth is milk. Sweetened and acidic drinks that are high in calcium and phosphate, such as milk and yogurt can protect your teeth from the harmful effects of acids. Milk aids in a process called remineralization, where calcium and phosphate are taken into the tooth enamel, making it stronger. There are also other components in milk that prevent the bacteria from sticking to the tooth and growing into plaque. So, drinking some milk and eating dairy products such as yogurt or cheese are good additions for your daily routine – if you are able to digest them. Be mindful of your choices and do what works best for you, personally.
Sugar not only affects your teeth, but your whole body. My friend, Liz Blom, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). Liz and I agree that moderation is key. I asked Liz what she tells her clients when asked: How much sugar is too much?
The American Heart Association guidelines call for less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for children ages 2 to 18 years. This includes no more than 8 ounces of sugar-sweetened drinks per week.
How can parents and children identify if they are breaking the sugar bank? One of my favorite activities for parents as well as children (who can do the math) is to read food labels, find ‘sugar,’ and have them calculate teaspoons of sugar in their favorite foods. The simple math: every 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon.
(¾ cup) of Lucky Charms® cereal contains 10g sugar = 2 ½ teaspoons sugar.
1 pouch (.9oz) Welch’s® Fruit Snacks contain 11g sugar = 2 ¾ teaspoons sugar.
12oz. Bottle of Gatorade® contains 19g sugar = 4 ¾ teaspoons sugar.
12oz Can of A&W® Root Beer contains 45g sugar = 11.25 teaspoons (almost double daily recommendation).
The problems with too much sugar:
Eating lots of added sugar early in life is linked to obesity, high blood pressure and type two diabetes. These health problems put children and young adults at risk for heart disease.
Plus, filling up on sugary treats (often lacking in nutrition value) leaves less room in the belly for heart-healthy fare like fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
How to manage sugar:
- Learn how to balance your own nutrition first and talk to your children about the importance of balanced nutrition.
- Set an example by eating fruits and vegetables.
- Remember you are the nutrition gatekeeper. Keep fresh and frozen fruit on hand for sweets with nutritional value.
- Practice rewarding behaviors with items or events other than sugary foods.
- Finally, occasional treats can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Just remember the following: Keep portion in mind. Share (split it) with friends and family. Find joy in the food and the moment by turning off the television – avoiding screen time and mindless eating.
Liz Blom is the Founder and Chief Health Nut of Veggies and Chocolate™. In addition to being a solopreneur, Liz is a dedicated wife, mother of two busy teenage daughters, an athlete and a health, wellness and nutritional coach.
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Here are a few simple tips for maintaining healthy teeth and gums.
- Brush at least twice daily. (Bonus points for brushing after lunch!)
- Wait at least 30 minutes before brushing your teeth after drinking sugary beverages. The acids in them make your teeth weaker, and tooth brushing can remove the softened enamel and produce wear.
- Reduce the daily amount of sweetened drinks. (Refer to them as a “sometimes drink.”)
- Drink plenty of fluoridated water with meals, and along with sweetened beverages to wash away the sugar and acids.
- Use a straw to help reducing the contact of sweetened beverages with your teeth.
- Supplement sugary drinks with milk, yogurt, or water.
- Visit your dentist every six months for your cleaning.