You may be surprised to learn that dental disease is the most common chronic non-infectious disease in both industrial and most low income countries. It affects nearly 4 billion people, and although largely preventable, still remains a prevalent public health concern. And by far the most important dietary factor in the development of poor oral health and dental disease is. . .
Researchers recently studied health records from around the world, and found disturbing trends in dental disease. They found that tooth decay from sugar, especially in the United States, was far too high. 60-90% of school-aged children, and over 90% of adults in the US have experienced tooth decay. Compared to countries with very little sugar in their diets – such as Nigeria, where only 2% of people have tooth decay – the rates of decay in the US is troubling, to say the least. The study attributes the increases in dental disease to excess sugar consumption.
If you’re like most people in the US, you probably consume about 20 teaspoons or more of added sugar per day, adding nearly 300 calories to your diet. Instead, the American Heart Association says adults should consume no more than 6-9 teaspoons daily. In 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) revised their sugar guidelines, saying that decreasing the recommended daily sugar amount of a person’s total daily calories to 5% (from their earlier guidelines of 10%) would greatly reduce both cavities and obesity.
That may sound reasonable, but that means that Americans would have to cut out TWO-THIRDS of their total sugar intake to meet the new WHO guidelines. That’s a LOT of sugar!
So why do we crave sugar?
You know the signs: it’s an hour or so before lunch, and your stomach grumbles. You crave something sweet, you lose control and have a sweet snack. Your energy level increases, because sugar is a simple carbohydrate, and is quickly turned into glucose in your bloodstream, which raises your blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, what comes up, must come down. Your body releases insulin to move glucose out of the bloodstream and into your cells, which results in a drop in blood sugar. So now you’re even more tired than before you ate the sugary treat. You may consume even more sugary foods or drinks after that, and the cycle continues.
And of course, we also eat sugar because it tastes good. The brain sees sugary foods and drinks as a reward, which makes you keep wanting more of them. If you regularly consume a lot of sugar, you’re reinforcing that reward, and before long, that consumption has turned into a dangerous habit, or even an addiction.
Now you know: so what’s the plan?
According to the study, sugars are the only cause of tooth decay in kids and adults. And that’s just addressing the effects of sugar on the teeth. With the rise of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, our sugar consumption is obviously a major health concern overall. It’s one thing to know that you are probably consuming far too much sugar every day, but it’s another thing to make a plan to change those habits. The first step is to educate yourself. Believe it or not, a lot of your sugar habits will be easier to break than you think.
- First: Identify where your sugar intake is coming from. The obvious place to start is with nutritional labels. And don’t just look for the word “sugar”. There are many other names to look for, such as high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, glucose, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, sucrose, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, and hydrolysed starch. If the nutritional label on your food lists any form of sugar in the first few ingredients, or has more than 4 total grams of sugar, avoid it.
You may think you’re safe if you don’t eat or drink many sugary foods. But starchy foods, such as chips and french fries, are complex carbs that the body breaks down into simple sugars. Eaten alone, they can cause the same problems with blood sugar that sugar does. Avoid highly-refined starches, such as white rice and white flour, found in white bread, crackers, pasta, etc. Instead, eat whole grain foods for added energy and fiber. And scout out hidden sources of excess sugar, such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, and pasta sauce.
- Choose your snacks wisely. Cutting back on sugar doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy sweet foods. Try fresh fruit and berries on unsweetened cereal, and eat low-sugar yogurt for dessert instead of ice cream.
Snacks rich in protein will actually curb your sweet cravings. They digest more slowly, and don’t cause blood sugar spikes. Choose nuts, yogurt, lean poultry, eggs, etc.
- It’s really mind over matter. Many people can’t imagine forgoing everyday sweets, but most would be surprised how easy it can be to “retrain” the brain, or in this case, the taste buds. Cutting out one sweet food from your daily intake may bother you for a few days, but after that, you will notice less sweet cravings at that time of day. Try passing on dessert for a week, and then take note of how infrequently you crave dessert. Next step, reduce or cut out the sugar in your coffee, or trade out your afternoon soda for water. Within a short period of time, you probably won’t miss them at all.
To make a lasting lifestyle change such as this, first work out some ground rules with yourself. You don’t have to go all-or-nothing, but following some simple rules can make a huge difference. Maybe you can decide to only eat dessert once a week, or even once a month. Commit to not eating anything for an hour before bed, drinking a full glass of water before eating a sweet snack, eating/drinking only one sweet food per day, not adding sugar to anything you eat: Whatever “rules” you set for yourself, stick to them, and watch the changes they bring!
- Start with breakfast. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and in regards to sugar consumption, they are right. If you skip breakfast, you are much more likely to need a snack before lunch, and good chances are that snack will contain sugar. A filling, nutritious breakfast will fuel your day, and curb your cravings. Be careful, though: there are dangerously high levels of sugar in many breakfast cereals, some made up of as much as 1/3 sugar! Instead, choose low-sugar cereals, and add fresh fruit for sweetness. Or eat a savory meal full of protein and fiber to jump start your day.
- Get plenty of rest, exercise, and sunshine. Your body craves sugar, but what it really needs is whole foods, quality rest, and good exercise. Exercise not only wipes out sugar cravings, but also influences how you eat. When you feel better, you crave healthier foods. It’s that simple. Get to bed early enough to get a full night’s rest. If you stay up late, you’re more likely to snack more, and also to skip breakfast the next day.
Sugar is a part of our lives, and will continue to be so. Cutting down on the quantity you consume each day can make significant changes in your overall health though, and especially in the health of your teeth and gums. Nobody wants you to eliminate sugar completely, but every small change you make will make a huge difference. Do it in baby steps; small, simple changes to your diet, one at a time. Trade your sweet snacks for fruits and vegetables, drink extra water every day, scour food labels for those that don’t have a lot of sugar. Cut out a little bit of sugar each week. After a few weeks, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss it.