Sugar is not so sweet ... the importance of resisting your sweet tooth for maintaining great oral health
This week is Dental Health Week, which aims to educate Australians about the importance of maintaining good oral health in every aspect of their lives.
In 2021, the focus of the week is on the importance of taking steps to care for your oral health, to help make sure you can keep your teeth and smile for life!
To mark the week, we have taken a comprehensive look at sugar and why it’s a threat to our oral health. We’ve also provided some advice on how to remove sugar from your diet, and the benefits of doing so.
We’ve all heard the stats about the negative impacts of too much refined and processed sugar on our bodies. The research keeps on coming, and the findings continue to paint a grim picture of sugar consumption and all manner of health problems.
A sugar-heavy diet can lead to complications including inflammation throughout the body, weight gain, and conditions like heart disease, cancer, stroke and dementia. The fact that sugar wreaks havoc on our bodies is no secret … and our teeth are no exception.
The problems start where the cariogenic bacteria found in the mouth converts sugar into acid. Once coated with this acid, tooth enamel becomes eroded, severely increasing the risk of decay and gum disease.
While regular check-ups with your dentist and an effective oral hygiene maintenance routine all help to provide a level of protection, this is not addressing the root cause of the issue.
The best answer seems to be the most obvious one … cut down on your sugar intake! Not only will this have a direct impact on your oral health, but will also support the health of other parts of your body.
Quitting sugar … some helpful tips
Obviously, ditching sugar will involve eliminating things like ice cream, chocolate, and even most breakfast cereals from your diet. Although not easy to give up (sweet treats are far too tempting and delicious!!), at least these sugary foods aren’t too difficult to identify.
The bigger issue is avoiding sugar that’s hiding in plain sight. White bread, pasta, canned vegetables, protein bars, alcoholic beverages, and pretty much any product marketed as ‘low fat’ (yogurt being the prime example) contain levels of sugar that would come as a shock to most people. To counter this, always remember to check the nutritional information on the food you purchase.
Removing all tempting sugary food options from your home is a great place to start. And replacing these with some healthy alternatives can at least lessen the pain! For example, instead of the sugar-filled slice of cake you might ordinarily have for desert, a few cubes of dark chocolate or a handful of fresh berries can offer some consolation.
When approaching the challenge of quitting sugar, psychologically it might be easier to start with a short-term goal. Right now, people across Australia are undertaking ‘Dry July’, and cutting out alcohol for a month. Why not see if you can do the same with sugar?
So, what exactly can you expect to happen to your body during that first month and beyond, once you take the plunge?
Expect some challenges …
Of course, switching to a sugar-free diet presents some tests, and not just because many of us suffer from a severe lack of will power. Sugar cravings and withdrawal symptoms are actual, proven things. More on these later!
It’s important to offer some words of reassurance at this point. Any negative side-effects of cutting out sugar will be temporary, some lasting only a matter of days. Being aware of the many benefits you will ultimately experience by persevering can provide the extra motivation you need.
Withdrawal symptoms and sugar cravings
Because it acts like any other addictive substance, there is a likelihood your body will have some sort of initial reaction to an absence of sugar. After all, you’re literally coming down from a high you’ve been enjoying for most of your life!
The first couple of days should be pretty easy thanks to the amount of glucose our bodies keep stored in reserve. Once those stocks have been used up, the symptoms of withdrawal will start to present.
Of course, the intensity of these symptoms will vary depending on how sugar-heavy your diet was to begin with. Most likely your mental state will experience the first noticeable changes. You might feel irritable, anxious or upset. Trouble concentrating is often reported, while others experience dizzy spells, episodes of nausea and even flu-like symptoms.
After the first couple of days without sugar, you can also expect to crave a sweet treat more intensely that you’ve ever craved one before. This is perfectly normal. The natural response of the brain to sugar withdrawal is to prompt the neuro-pathways that cause sugar cravings to swing into action, basically demanding more sugar from you ASAP!
These cravings are the result of your brain recognising the absence of glucose in the bloodstream. Glucose is created following sugar consumption, and your brain will have become dependant on it for energy.
Thankfully, glucose is not the only energy source our brains and bodies can use. Quality protein, longer-lasting carbohydrates and healthy fats are all just as effective. And burning fat will not only keep your brain and body moving, but will also result in weight loss – a primary reason for many people’s decisions to cut out sugar in the first place!
It is during this period of cravings that having your healthy alternatives on-hand will be of most benefit, helping to alleviate the yearning for sugar with a quick hit of something sweet.
This can’t be stated often enough … please don’t let any of the above put you off! Withdrawal symptoms and cravings will quickly ease as your body adjusts to drawing its energy from a different source. After that, the good stuff will follow …
Consistent and boosted energy
Many people associate energy with sugar, and this is true to an extent.
Sugar is processed quickly by the body, providing an immediate burst of energy. However, it is equally as quick to disappear, and as blood sugar levels return to normal you’re likely to feel even less energised than you were pre-sugar hit. The danger here? Seeking out even more sugar!
The good news is that by replacing sugary foods with ‘unrefined’ or ‘complex’ carbohydrates such as fresh fruits and vegetables, the body has to work harder to break them down and access their nutrients. The result? A much slower release of energy, and a reduced urge to snack.
At the same time, your natural blood sugar levels will stabilise to a healthy level, meaning you can wave goodbye to post-sugar energy crashes, and say hello to consistent levels of energy.
A better night’s sleep
A sugar energy crash can increase the temptation to take a nap, interfering with your sleep pattern. Lots of sugar also causes the body to increase production of a hormone known as cortisol, which can also interfere with your natural sleep cycle.
But by saying sayonara to sugar you’re essentially taking back control of your own energy levels, meaning you can more easily prepare your body for a night of restorative sleep.
Reduced inflammation for a healthier body and clearer skin
It is broadly accepted that sugar causes inflammation throughout the body by feeding a certain type of gut bacteria. For context, a recent study found the consumption of just one soft drink per day over a three-week period was enough to raise inflammation levels by a massive 87 per cent!
Sugar also inhibits the production of the inflammation-reducing bacteria that works to counter this.
Why is this such a big deal? Inflammation is one of the main causes of many serious health conditions, so its reduction will fortify your body against illness.
Aside from the impact on your general health, some added benefits of reduced inflammation include boosted mood, improved digestion, and a noticeably better complexion!
A better memory and a clearer mind
Research indicates overconsumption of sugar can limit your brain’s memory function. By regularly and consistently overindulging you risk causing irreversible damage to the pathways between brain cells, which can lead to longer-term problems with your memory.
Removing sugar from the equation will give you mental clarity by negating the need for your brain to send you signals that your body needs sugar. Once it realises you can be appropriately fuelled without the need for sugar, you’ll benefit from extra mental energy that you can devote to both work and play.
Discover the joy of new flavours
Because of the impact of sugar on the pallet, you probably haven’t been enjoying the full taste experience while eating. Soon, you’ll start to experience flavours that were previously muted by the presence of sugar, making mealtimes and even healthy snacking even more pleasurable!
Better general health
If all the benefits described above weren’t reason enough to encourage you to show sugar the door, the healthier foods you’ll be eating instead tend to contain the vitamins and minerals that sugary foods so often lack. This will mean an overall positive boost to the health of your body and immune system.
One last quick tip … don’t be too hard on yourself!
It may be that you have the occasional accidental (or deliberate!) slip up, either as a result of giving in to a moment of temptation, or simply not reading a label properly. Whatever you do, DO NOT use this as an excuse to give up. Instead, learn from your mistake and use it to inform the approach to your continued efforts.
So, what role does dentistry and oral health play in all of this?
Fundamentally, it’s always important to ensure your mouth is functioning well. We know sugar increases the risk of tooth decay. Damaged, missing or sensitive teeth can impact what we eat, with nutrient-rich whole foods becoming too much of a challenge, and processed alternatives providing an easier option with less discomfort.
Australia’s Adult Oral Health Tracker offers information on the extent of tooth decay in Australia today, and the figures are sobering. Untreated tooth decay affects more than 32 per cent of Aussie adults, representing an almost 7 per cent increase since 2004/06!
In May this year, the Global Consensus for Achieving a Dental Cavity-Free Future consensus report was published, including key policy recommendations to help address this issue. Amongst the recommendations is a greater focus on public and professional education about what good oral hygiene looks like, including the role of sugar.
Aside from decay, we also know sugar is one of the main causes of gum disease – a common symptom of which is bleeding. This gives bacteria that lives in the mouth an easy route into the bloodstream, via which it can make its way to other parts of the body where it can cause various complications.
It is therefore essential that your mouth and teeth are properly looked after at all times and, as we’ve just seen learned, one of the most impactful steps you can take is to limit or completely cut out sugar from your diet.