Whether it’s in your morning coffee, doughnut, or sprinkled on your favorite cereal for that extra sweetness, sugar is the way many people start their day. Yet what we know as sugar is actually refined sugar. Also called processed sugar, it’s extracted from the sugar cane or sugar beet plant and chemically processed to remove its natural nutrients. If the words “chemically processed” look ominous to you, you’re correct in assuming it isn’t healthy. According to Healthline, refined sugars may increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. They’re also linked to a higher likelihood of depression, dementia, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.
And if you depend upon a sugar-charged snack or beverage as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, there’s a wealth of scientific evidence that they ultimately have the opposite effect. According to an article by Elizabeth Millard for Runner’s World, “When researchers crunched the data from 31 studies, they discovered that sugary foods and drinks do not actually improve mood or fatigue. In fact, consuming them can actually increase your energy slump.”
The typical American diet is top-heavy in refined sugar — including “hidden” sugars in foods you wouldn’t suspect, such as pasta sauces and granola bars. So if you’ve recently embarked on following a healthier lifestyle, kicking the sugar habit may be harder to deal with than you’d expected!
How Does Sugar Affect Your Teeth?
Interestingly enough, although refined sugar is often implicated as a cause of tooth decay, sugar itself isn’t really the culprit. As our blog post — “Common Dental Health Myths” — covers, sugar does not promote cavities. Rather, how long the sugar remains in your mouth is the real issue. Sugars introduced into the mouth cause bacteria to produce acids that slowly eat away at tooth enamel, making your teeth more susceptible to cavities.
Most of us don’t brush after every meal, and people tend to snack on foods and drink beverages containing refined sugar throughout the day. According to University General Dentists, “Foods containing high amounts of white processed sugar are particularly damaging because these foods leave a sticky residue on your teeth that is too strong for your saliva to wash away. The only way to remove this residue is by brushing, flossing, mouthwash, and dental cleanings.”
In addition, high sugar consumption can contribute to periodontal (gum) disease. One study of young adults ages 18 through 25 concluded that “A high frequency of consumption of added sugars is associated with periodontal disease, independent of traditional risk factors, suggesting that this consumption pattern may contribute to the systemic inflammation observed in periodontal disease and associated non-communicable diseases.”
Can You Become Addicted to Sugar?
Refined sugar packs a one-two punch, affecting both our overall health and oral health. Looking at your health goals and taking the appropriate steps toward improvement starts with being aware of what you’ve been eating, and making good choices moving forward.
Remember what we just mentioned about the dangers of “hidden” sugars? Instead of relying on your assumptions or guesswork, read the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods and beverages. This label is required by federal law on such products. The total grams of sugar per serving is under the heading Total Carbohydrates. Being informed will help you make smart decisions in reducing the number of refined sugars in your diet!
Once you’ve made the commitment to cut down, however, you may find that you’re physically dependent on consuming high amounts of sugar every day. There is a growing amount of research confirming sugar’s addictive effect. As a Healthline article covers, eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine in the body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the “reward circuit” associated with addictive behavior.
“When a certain behavior causes an excess release of dopamine, you feel a pleasurable ‘high’ that you are inclined to re-experience, and so repeat the behavior. As you repeat that behavior more and more, your brain adjusts to release less dopamine. The only way to feel the same ‘high’ as before is to repeat the behavior in increasing amounts and frequency.
“Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward center, which leads to compulsive behavior, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more. Every time we eat sweets, we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug.”
Tips for Decreasing Your Sugar Consumption and Cravings
Setting your goal is important in making any lifestyle change. Do you want to decrease the amount of sugar you consume on a daily basis, or eliminate it as much as possible, knowing that many processed foods contain some amount of sugar? If the latter is the case, this necessitates a major change in how you buy and prepare food. If your objective is just to be mindful of what you eat and eliminate — or limit — desserts, “junk foods” and sodas, your adjustment will be easier, although still challenging, as you’re likely to crave them.
WORD OF CAUTION: Consult your doctor if you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes before making any change to your diet. Your doctor will be pleased that you want to be proactive in improving your health, but needs to be your partner to make sure you proceed safely.
Enjoy in moderation — Instead of eating a full-size candy bar, buy a chocolate bar that can be broken up into sections and have one or two pieces. Read the Nutrition Facts label for the amount of sugar per serving. Extra tip: Eat somewhat less than a serving. This also will help reduce fat grams and calories. If someone brings goodies to the office, cut a small slice or — in the case of doughnuts — cut it in half. Don’t go back for seconds.
Eat at regular times — Many people have a busy schedule and skip meals. Or they stick to a traditional breakfast-lunch-dinner meal pattern. But waiting too long between meals may set you up to choose sugary, fatty foods. Recent nutritional research indicates that eating every three to five hours instead can help keep blood sugar levels stable. A healthy mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack consisting of fruit, yogurt (be sure to check the label, as some brands are high in sugar) or an energy bar (same advice applies) can curb sugar cravings. Other good choices include proteins and fiber-rich foods — such as whole grains and produce.
Replace soda with spring water – This may be the hardest sugar habit to break, especially if your favorite soda contains caffeine — which, of course, is a highly addictive substance on its own. But avoid the mistaken belief that sugar-free soda is a good substitute! The absence of sugar doesn’t mean that sugar-free carbonated sodas won’t harm your teeth. Tooth enamel can still be damaged by the high acidity of soda. Also, diet soft drinks have been implicated as a cause/contributing factor of headaches, type 2 diabetes, and – ironically enough – weight gain.
Go cold turkey — Eliminating all sweets works for some people. But it isn’t easy. The initial 48 to 72 hours are especially difficult. After this time, you may notice sugar cravings greatly reduced, or at least better able to be managed over time. Again, consult your doctor if you have diabetes.
Flavorful Alternatives to Sugary Treats
Those who are serious about reducing their sugar cravings should retrain their taste buds to appreciate naturally sweet foods, or at least, those with a reduced amount of added sugar. As previously mentioned, American processed foods are overall sky-high in refined sugars. You may recall that an Irish court ruled that a certain U.S.-based fast-food chain’s bread was too high in sugar content to be legally called “bread.” Here’s a brief list of healthful alternatives to get you started:
- Fresh fruits
- Dark chocolate (in moderate servings)
- Chia seeds
- Legumes (lentils/beans/chickpeas)
- Yogurt (check the label for grams of sugar per serving)
- Sweet potatoes
- Trail mix (check the label for grams of sugar per serving)
- Fermented foods
- Whole grains
Of course, we also encourage you to do your own research! Making positive changes takes time, and don’t feel guilty if you occasionally give in to that big, gooey slice of pie. But over time, you’ll feel the difference — and nothing succeeds like success in reinforcing good habits that you’ll follow for a healthier life!
What This All Means for Your Oral Health
Whatever modifications you can make to reduce the amount of refined sugar you consume, the better off your oral health will be. Even so, you’ll still need to brush and floss regularly — as well as schedule twice-yearly examinations and cleanings with your dentist! Our complete dental checkups include professional teeth cleaning, an oral cancer screening, DIAGNOdent cavity detection, and when necessary, digital X-rays. We also offer supplemental fluoride applications when needed. After your complete dental checkup, you will know exactly where you stand in terms of your oral health and what you should do to provide proper care for your teeth and gums.
We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.
At NK Family Dental, it is our mission to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including both dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.
Our dental specialists include our general dentist, Dr. Nilofer Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.