Confused About Sugar?

Do you ever worry about which foods are safe for your children to eat? Which ones are too sugary? Whether you will ever be able to get them to eat broccoli?

Our resident dentist Rachel Wood  is here to answer the most common questions she is asked by her patients.

What foods are safe?

The great news is that most foods are perfectly safe for you and your children to enjoy.  It is important from a nutritional point of view that you and your children get a good mixture of food types.  These include proteins, fats and carbohydrates.  Fruit and vegetable are fantastic for filling us up with healthy nutrient rich foods that give our children energy and help their development.

Complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and rice will give your children energy to fuel their bodies so that they can crawl, walk climb and jump!  Proteins including meat, fish, eggs and pulses are also great for energy and growth but contain very little dietary sugars

Fats such as butter, vegetable and animal fats are also a great source of energy and they contain no sugar, which means they are safe for teeth and will keep those little ones fuelled up for the day ahead.

We are very lucky to have dietary advice from a fantastic paediatric dietary nutritionist.Click here to read her articles on baby nutrition.

Sugar: is it the dentist’s worst enemy?

​​Dentists try our hardest to protect your teeth from disease and if they are already damaged or broken, we do out best to repair them. Unfortunately sugar consumption has a direct link to tooth decay and is the number one cause of toothaches and infections.  Sugar is the favourite food of the bacteria which live in our mouths: the more we feed them sugar the more they grow and as bacteria digest the sugar we put in our mouths, they produce acid.

Bacteria + SUGAR = ACID

This acid causes tooth damage.  It leads to teeth becoming soft and weak, eventually they will start to crumble and form cavities. Ouch!  It is worth remembering that dental cavities are a preventable disease and with the right diet and brushing regime your chances of having a cavity are dramatically reduced.

You can fix teeth can’t you?

Tooth structure is a very precious material that takes special cells in our jaws a very long time to make - up to 6 years per big adult tooth and 16 months for baby teeth!  It takes even longer to finish off the roots.  It is so important that we look after this unique biological substance after all that hard work our bodies have done to produce it in the first place.  Unlike hair and nails, tooth structure does not re-grow and as dentists when we fill holes we can do ONLY that. We cannot at the moment re-grow tooth structure so once teeth are damaged they will stay that way for life.  Therefore, it is so important we take good care of the very special substances that make up our teeth.

So no sugar then…that is impossible!

We can never say NO sugar, so it is all about reducing the risk of sugar damaging our teeth. Limit sugary foods to meal time when you are eating other food groups as well.  This has the effect of diluting sugary foods when they are being eaten.  Stop in between mealtime snacking on high sugar foods especially for children.  Biscuits, chocolate, sweets etc are not only poor nutritionally but they contain a lot of sugar which increases the risk of cavities.  The other problem with confectionary is that it is often very sticky and can get stuck on teeth for many hours: this gives bugs in our mouths lots of sugar to eat and will mean there is a continual acidic environment in our mouths damaging those lovely teeth.

What rules can I enforce in my household then? Make it easy for me!

I know what it is like to be a busy parent but a few simple rules can really help to make a huge difference.

  1. Water is the drink of choice for thirst. It is free, healthy and why not!  Fruit juices and cordial or squash all have sugar in them.  Start this rule early - as soon as your baby starts to wean and don’t introduce sugary drinks until you really have to.  I have been to plenty of children’s parties and know what they are like, so be realistic. As a treat every so often it will do not any harm. Once your child has tried any of these sugary drinks they may well ask for them more frequently but be strong and limit it only to special occasions or as a weekend treat. Schools and nurseries are usually on board and generally have a water only policy so just enforce the same rules at home.

  2. Avoid fizzy drinks. Most fizzy drinks are not great for teeth, they either contain a lot of sugar, and if they are sugar free, they are generally very acidic, which is also damaging for teeth.

  3. Snack on low sugar foods. For example, replace a slice of cake or a chocolate bar with a ham sandwich on granary bread.  Not only will it fill them up for longer but it will be safe for teeth.  There are some great finger foods for little ones which will give an energy pick me up without excessive sugar.  Children often need to snack more than adults due to the fact they have little tummies and are often extremely active, but try if you can to keep these snacks as healthy as possible.

  4. Drink milk. It is a great drink for little ones, either breast or formula and when they are ready, dairy milk. It contains everything little people need to grow big and strong.  Please be aware though that if your child has a beaker or bottle in their room overnight which they can access on demand make sure it only contains water.   Do not allow a bottle of milk to be treated the same way as a dummy.  Constantly drinking a little bit of milk throughout the night can increase the risk of cavities from the sugar contained in milk.

  5. Treat time. Once a week in our house we have a treat day, usually a Saturday. My daughters who are now six get to choose a food treat of some description.  We buy it with them and they usually eat it it that day, well, it has usually disappeared within five minutes of it being purchased.  It is a great way for them feel as though they are not missing out. Likewise avoid using food as a reward for good behaviour, food is for energy and health and an important social occasion for families.  Try to use other rewards for good behaviour such as stickers, reward charts etc.  This will also help create a healthy relationship with food which is something we know is very important.

Is fruit safe?

Fruit recently has come under scrutiny from dietary experts as having a high sugar content.  However, from a dental perspective we recommend fruit be an essential part of your families diets.  Fruit when given as a whole piece or cut into smaller toddler friendly sizes is a great source of complex carbodyrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

The main thing that we have been concerned about is fruit sugars, most commonly fructose.  In its most basic form (an un-chopped piece of fruit or even a chopped-up one for that matter) the fructose sugars are held within the fibrous matrix of the fruit.  This means that it is not easily digested in our mouths which means it is safe for teeth and unlikely to cause any damage to them.

How about fruit juice then?

Fruit juice however is a different story.  Once the fruit has been blended and the fibre matrix broken down, the fructose sugars are released. If drunk on a frequent basis (the main drink for thirst) it may lead to tooth decay.  We would never advise against drinking fruit juice but one cup a day is plenty to have as a part of a balanced breakfast.

I hope this has been useful, there is always more to be said on this topic! The British Dental Health Foundation website is a great source of further information if anyone would like any more can click here to visit their site.

Happy mealtimes!