Most people grow up hearing this from their parents and teachers, doctors and school nurses. But you may also know people who seem to eat a ton of sugar, yet their teeth remain healthy. So does sugar actually cause cavities?
The cavity-making process involves several factors, and sugar is one of them.
What Causes Cavities?
Technically, cavities are a bacterial infection of a tooth’s hard structures, enamel and dentin. Scientists have identified the particular bacterium responsible for cavities: Streptococcus mutans. Most humans have this bacteria present in their mouths. Babies are not born with it, but we quickly transfer it to them through kisses and spoon sharing.
The bacteria lives inside dental plaque, using its stickiness to maintain contact with the tooth surface. The more plaque on the teeth, the more bacteria you have in your mouth. These bacteria produce a strong acid as a waste product.
Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, and the only thing that can soften it and penetrate it is acid. This acid from the S. mutans bacteria allows the bacteria to cause decay and work their way into a tooth.
What Role Does Sugar Play in the Cavity Process?
Sugar, or more specifically refined carbohydrates, feed the bacteria that cause cavities. Simple carbs are their primary source of “food”, and as they digest it, they produce the enamel-softening acid. Sugar is, therefore, a necessary factor in the cavity process. A diet that is high in sugar will definitely increase your risk for developing cavities.
When we say “sugar”, many people think of candy, cookies, and sodas. However, those aren’t the only culprits in increasing the risk for cavities. Any simple carbohydrate can feed these bacteria, so cutting back on sugar for the purposes of fighting cavities also means cutting out snacks like chips, crackers, breads, etc…
Will Cutting Back on Sugar Lower My Risk for Cavities?
As we mentioned in the introduction paragraph, you may know some people who seem to have a high sugar diet without having cavities in their teeth. This is due to the multifactorial nature of cavities. Sugar is only one of the factors in the development of cavities. Those with an already-low risk for cavities usually do not need to worry about their sugar intake.
However, if you or someone you love tends to develop cavities frequently (i.e. getting a new cavity more than once every two to three years), you should consider taking steps to lower your cavity risk. One of those steps will be altering your diet.
Sugar affects the cavity process in two ways: the amount of sugar you ingest and the timing of your sugar intake. By understanding these, you can take steps to lower your cavity risk in ways that will truly make a difference while still allowing you to enjoy some sugar periodically.
The Amount of Sugar Intake
The amount of simple carbohydrates in your diet does matter. The more sugar you ingest in your food and drinks, the more you are feeding cavity-causing bacteria. The carbohydrates are the fuel they use to create the acid that breaks down your enamel. By limiting the amount of carbs you eat and drink, you are limiting the amount of damage the bacteria can do.
The Timing of Sugar Intake
We do not want you to completely give up all the things you love. There are ways to enjoy your sugary drink or your desserts while limiting the damage the carbs can do. One of our best weapons against acid is saliva, and we create the most saliva when we eat a meal. During a meal, the bacteria in dental plaque can do the least amount of damage. This means having your soda or sweets with your meal.
Avoid snacking on simple carbs or sipping sugary drinks between meals. This is when they can cause the most damage.
More Questions about Cavities?
Call Rockland Dental Specialists today to schedule a consultation with our dental experts. We can answer any question you have about cavities, assess your specific risk level for developing cavities, and provide you with helpful information to stop them before they start.