A diet high in sugar certainly promotes the formation of cavities, but sugar itself isn’t the only culprit behind tooth decay.
Cavities are formed when bacteria living in the mouth digest carbohydrates left on the teeth after you eat. This includes refined sugars found in cookies, candy or other treats, however they may also come from healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
When digesting carbohydrates, bacteria in your mouth produce an acid that combines with food debris and saliva and forms plaque.
It’s the plaque — not sugar — that directly leads to tooth decay. Plaque starts building up after every meal, and if it isn’t brushed away frequently, it can erode the hard, outer enamel of a tooth, resulting in tiny holes in the tooth’s surface. These holes mark the first stage of cavities and can do a lot of damage to a tooth if left untreated.
Eventually, acid and bacteria in plaque can eat through the other layers of your teeth, as well — from the softer layer of teeth under the enamel, known as dentin, to the third layer (the pulp), which contains your teeth’s blood vessels and nerves. Cavities affecting the pulp of a tooth, as well as the bone supporting the tooth, can cause severe toothaches, sensitivity, pain when eating and even abscesses in the mouth.
It is important to know that the kinds of foods and drinks you consume, and how you are consuming them is also important to oral health.
Sticky foods — like hard candy, breath mints, raisins and dry cereal — can get stuck in the grooves and crevices of your teeth, where they could cause decay. Fruit and yogurt, on the other hand, wash away easily with saliva and are, therefore, less likely to cause plaque buildup.
Quickly finishing a can of soda does less damage to your teeth than sipping on it throughout the day, because the acid created by mouth bacteria stays in the mouth around 20 minutes after eating or drinking. Every time you eat carbohydrates, sugary food, or take a sip of soda, you restart the plaque-production clock and increase your risk of developing cavities.
In addition to a high sugar content, soft drinks and sports drinks also contain phosphoric and citric acids that erode tooth enamel. Eating or drinking highly acidic foods — even healthy foods, like citrus fruits — can lead to tooth decay if oral hygiene is not properly maintained.
None of us can totally avoid eating all carbohydrates, sugars, or acidic foods all of the time but we can limit the amount and more importantly the frequency of consumption. And we can also work on effective and regular plaque control by using oral hygiene aids to remove the plaque colonies which are forming constantly on the teeth.
Dr. Britten recommends brushing at least twice a day with a power toothbrush for two minutes as well as cleaning between the teeth at least once a day using floss or other interdental aids.
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