How Too Much Sugar Can Impact Your Oral and Overall Health

While many diets once centered around reducing fat intake, today’s diets focus more on cutting carbohydrate consumption. Physicians and researchers now know that excess carbohydrate intake, particularly sugar, can have serious, negative consequences for both your oral health and your overall wellness. Some sources of sugar are obvious—candy, for example—but some surprising items are also chock-full of sugar. The team at Bruce Sexton, DDS, put together this article to help you identify and eliminate the hidden sugars or extra sugar from your diet.

Why is too much sugar bad?

Sugar and dentists may seem like natural enemies, and it’s true that sugar is often the source of tooth decay and gum disease. However, it’s not hidden sugars (or too much sugar) per se that is the problem when it comes to oral health. Rather, harmful bacteria use the sugar in your mouth as fuel. These bacteria secrete acid as they grow and multiply, and that acid causes tooth decay. Furthermore, bacterial activity leads to gum disease in the form of inflammation and infection.

Excess carbohydrates also have a profound impact on your general health. Your body uses carbohydrates for quick energy. This is why some marathon runners load up with carbs before a race. However, those carbs must be stored if you’re not going to burn them for energy. As you probably guessed, your body stores carbohydrates as fat. So, too many carbohydrates can contribute to an unhealthy weight. Of course, excess weight leads to a whole host of serious problems like cardiovascular disease and increased cancer risk.

Additionally, your body takes a specific route to break down any carbohydrates you ingest. Eventually, your digestive system reduces all carbohydrates to glucose, a simple sugar and your main form of energy. However, your body needs insulin, a hormone that your pancreas produces, to utilize glucose. Without insulin, levels of glucose in your blood will rise to unsafe levels.

When you continually eat too many carbohydrates, your pancreas can’t keep up with the insulin production, and it begins to “burn out.” When this occurs, your body no longer makes sufficient insulin to process your glucose, and you’ll need medications to help. In short, the result is type 2 diabetes mellitus.  

Where does sugar hide?

A slice of pineapple, a piece of chocolate cake, a can of non-diet soda, a scoop of butter pecan ice cream—all these items are obviously full of sugar. How do you know? One reason is that they taste sweet. If everything that contained sugar were sweet, though, it would be simple to avoid sources of excess sugar. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Sometimes, sugar hides in foods without a sweet flavor, and other times companies have hidden sugars in their processed foods.

Starches

Starches are complex carbohydrates, and they don’t generally taste sweet. Examples of starches include grains, potatoes, and corn. Any pastry, pasta, potato, or bread product is likely to be a starch.

Remember, your body will turn starch into the simple sugar glucose. So, eating too much starch has a very similar effect to consuming too many sweets, namely weight gain. Starch consumption can also harm your oral health. Your saliva contains an enzyme called salivary amylase, which begins working to break down starch into simpler sugars as soon as food passes your lips. This enzymatic action means that starchy foods release sugars into your mouth as well as into the rest of your body.

Pasta Sauce

A hearty tomato-based sauce can be delicious, but it also may contain a load of carbs. This is surprising since most sauces taste savory or acidic, and tomatoes have very few carbohydrates. Still, the truth is that commercial pasta sauces can be quite sugary. You can find low-carb alternatives, though, or make your own sauce at home.

Yogurt

Sure, you would expect frozen yogurt to have a bunch of sugar, but even the non-frozen varieties can have hidden sugars that are usually too much. Yogurt is a good source of protein and calcium, and you can avoid the sugar by choosing options with less sugar. Plain yogurt is often a good alternative as is Greek-style yogurt.

Dried or Canned Fruit

Any fruit is going to contain sugar in the form of a simple sugar called fructose. However, dried or canned fruits are steeped in concentrated sugar and sometimes syrup. Fresh fruit is always a better choice.

Salad Dressings

Some salad dressings contain a surprising amount of sugar, especially low-fat varieties of ranch and blue cheese. Raspberry vinaigrette is another common sugary culprit. Be sure you check out the label on your favorite dressing during your next shopping trip.   

How to Read Nutrition Labels

Nutrition labels are invaluable when it comes to determining sugar content, but they don’t tell the whole story. The “carbohydrates” section will tell you how many total grams of carbs a food item contains, but you also need to read the subheadings. “Sugars” and “starches” are really the two numbers you’re interested in. The “fiber” section doesn’t count when you’re figuring sugar intake because humans can’t digest fiber. Fiber is great for your digestive system and keeping you regular, but it won’t affect your sugar intake.

“Sugar alcohols” are different. These are sugar substitutes, some of which occur naturally. These molecules exhibit characteristics of both sugar and alcohol. Don’t worry, they won’t cause you to become drunk, but they only count for half the amount of regular sugars. So, 4 grams of sugar alcohol would only be 2 grams of carbohydrates.

If you have further questions or concerns about hidden sugars in your diet or how sugar intake can affect your teeth, talk with your primary care physician, or feel free to ask us the next time you’re in for an appointment.

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