American people, including military families, are frequently consuming foods and drinks high in sugar and starches. Junk foods and drinks have slowly replaced healthy, nutritious beverages and foods. Sugar is the enemy of the mouth. Army Col. Georgia Rogers, who specializes in preventive dentistry, provides insight into this problem.
Question: Many people say that they have cavities because they have inherited “soft teeth” from their parents. Is it true that people who get more cavities have “soft teeth?”
Rogers: There is no actual condition called “soft teeth.” Some rare genetic conditions can cause weak, brittle teeth but in the vast majority of cases they are not the cause of tooth decay. We now know that tooth decay is usually a sign that something is out of balance. Several factors can cause tooth decay, alone or in combination. Figuring out what is going on requires you to give a little time and attention to your diet and your daily hygiene regimen. Most tooth decay is caused by not using fluoride toothpaste the right way or by exposing your teeth to sugars too often.
Question: How should we use fluoride toothpaste?
An adult should always assist children under the age of eight with tooth brushing. Use a rice-sized amount of toothpaste for children less than three and no more than a pea-sized amount for children aged three to six. Brush the toothpaste on all surfaces of the teeth for two minutes at least twice a day – just before bedtime is the most important. Then rinse the brush and brush the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Do not rinse with water after brushing. Just spit several times to remove the excess toothpaste. Have small children say “Patooey!” very forcefully if they have difficulty spitting. Do not eat or drink for at least 20 minutes after you brush. This lets the fluoride stay on your teeth longer and fight decay. Brushing right before bedtime is particularly important to prevent decay.
Question: Why is sugar so harmful to your mouth?
When sugar is consumed in food or drinks, it provides food for bacteria, which produce acid. The acid can eat away the enamel of the teeth, allowing the bacteria to penetrate and cause more damage. If nothing disrupts the bacteria, the damage gets a little deeper every time you consume sugar. It eventually reaches the nerve causing an infection. Drinking water or brushing after taking liquid medicine can also reduce your child’s risk for decay.
Question: Is there a safe amount of sugar that you can have?
The new USDA Dietary Guidelines have decreased the recommended limit for added sugars to no more than 10 percent of daily calorie intake. If a child eats 1,500 calories a day, that is no more than 150 calories from sugar or about nine teaspoons. A recent survey showed children between the ages of nine and 18 have the highest sugar intake – about 17 percent of their total calories come from added sugar.
Question: Where do you find hidden sugar in foods?
Almost half of the sugar in the diets of Americans age two and over comes from beverages such as soda and fruit drinks. The next third comes from sweets, snacks and grains such as crackers, bread and cereal. Condiments like ketchup or salad dressing can also add a few extra teaspoons of sugar to your diet each day.
Question: How can you find out if your food or drinks have sugar added?
Read the nutrition facts label. The amount of sugar in each serving is listed under the section “Total Carbohydrates” as “Sugars” in grams. One teaspoon of sugar is a little over four grams. Also, look at the list of ingredients. There are now over 60 names for sugar but you can learn to spot them at www.mouthhealthy.org/en/nutrition. Use the number “3” as a guide. If a word for sugar is one of the first three ingredients listed or if there are more than three names for sugar on the list, then the product probably contains too much sugar. Another important source of sugar is children’s liquid medications for congestion, allergies, pain or fever.
Question: Teens and adults also eat snacks and drinks throughout the day. Are they at risk for tooth decay?
Anyone who eats sugary snacks and drinks between meals throughout the day is at risk for tooth decay. Consuming snacks or drinks right before bedtime is the most dangerous, because your saliva flow slows down when you go to sleep, so the acids produced by the bacteria in your mouth are not washed away or neutralized. That is why it is critical to always brush with fluoride toothpaste before sleeping.
Question: Are babies and toddlers at risk for tooth decay since they only use a bottle or a Sippy cup?
Yes, milk, formula or juice all contains some form of sugar. Babies should never be put to bed or allowed to fall asleep with a bottle of milk or formula. Prevent cavities in babies by wiping their gums with a clean, wet gauze pad or soft washcloth after each feeding – breast, bottle-fed or Sippy cup. Cleaning the gums and teeth removes the sticky film that contains bacteria which cause tooth decay.
Question: How do we protect older children’s teeth?
• Give them a healthy diet, so they have all of the vitamins and minerals that they need to keep their teeth and gums healthy.
• Limit sugary or starchy snacks between meals; offer nutritious snacks instead of crackers.
• Avoid sugary drinks such as sodas, juices, lemonade and sports drinks; provide water or low-fat milk.
• Help your children brush twice daily for two minutes and floss each day.
• Take your children for regular dental check-ups.
Join the Sugar Wars! Defeat the effects of sugar and maintain good oral health by brushing at least two minutes, two times a day, flossing and eating healthy meals and snacks.
For more information about “Sugar Wars” for National Children’s Dental Health Month and for tips to protect your teeth, go to the American Dental Association.
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