We recently discussed the fact that added sugar is hidden in many different kinds of foods, including kids’ snack foods and “healthy” foods. Eating too much sugar is bad for your teeth, your immune system, your blood sugar levels, and your weight, just to name a few. However, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all sources of added sugar and who even wants to live a life that doesn’t allow for any sweets?
Interestingly, there are a few techniques when eating sweets that are healthier for your teeth. You can also choose certain sweet foods as a healthier option than others. Read on for tips and techniques to indulge your sweet tooth the smart way!
1. Timing and frequency are important.
It is better to indulge once or twice a day than to be continually snacking. Researchers have discovered that reducing the amount of sugar that you eat doesn’t reduce the formation of cavities nearly as much as cutting back the frequency does (1). There are other health reasons to reduce your total amount of sugar. However, as far as dental health is concerned, cutting back on the number of times you have sugars and simple carbs in your mouth is more important than the total amount.
This is due to the fact that the bacteria in your mouth consume sugars and simple carbs, then produce acids that harm tooth enamel. More acids are produced for more than 20 minutes whenever you eat. If you are constantly snacking or drinking sugary drinks, your teeth never get a break from acid attacks or get a chance to reverse the damage caused by the acid. Usually, people who are constantly snacking will battle tooth decay more than people who have sweets with meals.
Saliva helps prevent cavities, if you give it a chance. It rinses away food and bacteria and contains antibacterial substances as well as minerals that help repair teeth. If you are constantly snacking, or if your mouth is usually dry, your saliva cannot do its job as well.
An added bonus to eating sweets with meals is that they will not have as big of an impact on your blood sugar as if you eat the sweets by themselves.
Avoid eating sugars and carbs an hour before going to bed. Our mouths don’t produce as much saliva at night, so it is not able to fight bacteria and remineralize your teeth as efficiently while you sleep.
And don’t forget that there are hidden sugars and simple carbs in many snack foods. Eating a bowl of pretzels before bed is as dangerous for your teeth as eating a bowl of ice cream or candy.
2. Know what you are eating.
Another important step is to be aware of the sugar that you are consuming. The ingredients on food labels are listed by quantity. So, if a form of sugar is one of the first five ingredients, that means there is a lot of sugar in it. Check out our post on Hidden Sugars for a list of many different names for sugar.
Another thing to be aware of is foods with multiple sources of sugar. For example, one brand of granola bars lists sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, invert sugar, fructose, and molasses in the ingredient list. That is a lot of different types of sugar for a 90-calorie granola bar!
3. Switch your sweet foods.
One reason that naturally sweet foods are better for you is that they require a little more work for your body to break down. The sugar in fruits and vegetables is encapsulated in plant cells, and most of it is broken down farther in the digestive tract. This means they are better for your teeth, your blood sugar levels, and your weight.
In contrast, added sugars and simple carbs, like those found in crackers and bread, are easily broken down in the mouth. This provides a feast for bacteria in the mouth, causing more acid to be produced.
There are plenty of naturally sweet foods that you can eat instead of sweets with a lot of added sugar. Some foods even provide a sweet taste but do not actually contain any sugar. Don’t forget that coconut sugar, maple syrup, and honey all count as added sugars.
Here are a few examples of naturally sweet foods:
Fruit: apple, apricot, banana, berries, kiwi, mango, melons, papaya, pear, plum, or peach
Vegetables: sweet potatoes, yams, beets, carrots, winter squash
Nuts: cashew, coconut, macadamia, pistachio, and pecan
Spices: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg
Extracts: almond, hazelnut, mint, and vanilla
As you read over this list, you may not have thought that most of these foods were sweet. That shows how much our taste buds have been affected by the abundance of added sugars in our diet. As you begin to switch to naturally sweet foods, your family will probably notice a difference. The good news is that our bodies are amazing, and our taste buds adapt pretty quickly. After a few months of eating naturally sweet foods, those with tons of added sugars will taste overwhelmingly sweet once you try them again.
Here are some specific things you can try when beginning to make the switch:
First, don’t try to change everything at once! Slowly decrease the amount of sugar your family consumes and make one or two changes at a time. The change is much more likely to last than if you try to make a bunch of drastic changes all at once.
Serve smaller portions. Eat ice cream from teacups instead of bowls, get one or two cookies instead of four or five, and cut small pieces of cake and pie. It also helps to dish up the dessert and put it away before you start eating it. You will probably eat far more cookies if the box is sitting on the table in front of you!
Choose sweet foods that aren’t sticky and have less sugar. For example, chocolate is generally a better choice than licorice or lollipops and many brands of ice cream will often have fewer sugars and simple carbs than cookies.
Switch to dark chocolate. If it contains more than 70% cocoa, it has some health benefits and much less sugar than milk chocolate.
Instead of reaching for sugar or honey to put on cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, or pancakes, try adding fresh or frozen fruit (be sure it has no added sugar!), spices, or extracts.
Try not to sip your sweets. Soda, juice, and coffee drinks with syrups can have more sugar than a large portion of dessert. Train your mind to think of these as a special, occasional treat, not something to indulge in every single day.
Spices, extracts, and almond or coconut milk are great additions to sweeten your coffee instead of sugar or flavored syrups or creamers.
Limit snacks. As we mentioned above, snacking is not good for your teeth. If you must snack, eat fresh fruit, veggies, or nuts and seeds. The sugar from plant sources does not promote tooth decay like added sugars and simple carbs do, keeps your blood sugar more stable, helps you feels full longer, and the plant fiber helps clean your teeth and promotes saliva. They also provide the satisfying crunch that you want from chips or crackers, without all the simple carbs that feed the bacteria.
Beware of dried fruit, though. Dried fruit often has a lot of added sugar.
Smoothies can be a great, healthy sweet choice, or a source of huge quantities of added sugar. Be sure to drink smoothies made from fresh or frozen fruit. Adding milk, nut milk, or nut butter with no added sugar is a great way to get protein and fats that help you stay full for longer. However, many smoothies can have sugar, juice, or frozen yogurt that drastically increase the sugar content.
If you really want a sweet flavor to tide you over, chew gum or suck on mints that contain xylitol, with no added sugar. It is a natural sweetener, with fewer calories than table sugar. When consumed regularly, it also causes the bacteria that produce acid to basically starve to death, creating a healthier oral environment.
4. Drink plenty of water.
If you drink water after you eat, it helps rinse away food particles, bacteria, and acids. Additionally, if you don’t drink enough water, you can become dehydrated which decreases the amount of saliva you produce. Speaking of dehydration, people often crave sweets when they really need water. Have a few sips of water and see if your craving goes away.
5. Finally, take good care of your teeth.
One of the most important things you can do to prevent cavities that result from eating sugar is to brush twice a day with toothpaste that contains fluoride. Studies have shown that “extensive use of mainly fluoride-containing toothpastes neutralize the potential damage from high sugar consumption (1).” Researchers have also concluded that people who do not have regular exposure to fluoride have a much higher risk of developing cavities from sugar consumption (2). In these studies, people who brushed with fluoride toothpaste twice a day had much better protection than people who brushed with fluoride less than twice a day (3).
This does not mean that you should eat and drink as much sugar as you want and expect fluoride to protect you. It does mean that if you limit the number of times you eat sweets and starches and brush twice a day with toothpaste that contains fluoride, you are much less likely to develop cavities.
As you can see, you don’t have to eliminate all sugars to have a healthy mouth. If you make intelligent choices, are smart about the timing, diligent about maintaining excellent oral hygiene, and get regular cleanings, your family can still enjoy sweet foods.
We are privileged to provide your children with a dental home where they feel comfortable asking questions and getting dental check-ups and cleanings. We are here to support you in training your children to care for their mouths, so they can enjoy a beautiful, healthy smile.
Call Us at (480) 759-1119
At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.
1. van Loveren C. (2019). Sugar Restriction for Caries Prevention: Amount and Frequency. Which Is More Important?. Caries research, 53(2), 168–175. https://doi.org/10.1159/000489571
2. Burt BA, Pai S. Sugar consumption and caries risk: a systematic review. J Dent Educ. 2001;65:1017–1023.
3. Ruxton CH, Gardner EJ, McNulty HM. Is sugar consumption detrimental to health? A review of the evidence 1995–2006. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2010;50:1–19.