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Sugar: Pay the Price Now AND Later

When I was growing up, we had sweets, soda and dessert contrary to the common query of others: “so your Dad’s a dentist (orthodontist), I’ll bet you don’t get any sweets, huh?” Of course we did, especially because my Mom made oh so amazing chocolate chip cookies.

After treating thousands of Patients of all ages, I see many who are currently and have paid the “price” both in damage to their teeth and gums. For some this has been a significant investment in the tens of thousands of dollars. My window to my Patient’s health is their mouth, but when I’m seeing evidence of too much sugar there, it is likely there are many other effects of sugar slowly taking control over their body, some obvious some hidden (for now).

So what’s the deal with sugar and why is it everywhere in the Standard American Diet (acronym SAD, coincidentally)?

Refined sugar (and white flour, but I’ll save that for another blog) is a recent development in human history; it didn’t exist thousands of years ago and humans had lived the vast majority of our history without it. Christopher Columbus was supposedly the first to bring sugar cane to the Americas, and by 1501 the first sugar cane harvest occurred in Hispaniola, leading to many sugar mills being constructed by the 1520’s. Until the 18th century, sugar was still a luxury item, and by the 19th century it was considered a necessity. The average sugar consumption in 1700 was around 5 lbs per person per year but by the 21st century, that consumption has risen to 150 lbs in the USA.

Here’s a wild quote from The Happiness Diet  that sums it up:

Over the course of the past two hundred years, we’ve increased our sugar intake by 3,000 percent. This is the single biggest change to the human diet since the invention of fire.”

Sugar isn’t a positive change to the human diet.

Excess sugar consumption is linked to certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and many other forms of disease. The author Nancy Appleton has researched and written extensively about the epidemic of excess sugar and has a list of 144 negative effects attributed to sugar. You can find it (with 144 cited sources) here.

As an orthodontist, I look in hundreds of mouths a month. Many are perfectly healthy, but unfortunately many are very diseased due to excess sugar intake (yes, starchy foods are carbohydrates that are broken down to sugar by the body) and lack of adequate oral hygiene practices. The oral “prices” are paid as follows (numbers from Nancy’s blog above):

  • Tooth Decay (#26)
  • Periodontal (Gum tissue) Disease (#38)
  • Saliva Acidity (#40) (saliva can’t buffer the acid secreted by cavity causing bacteria)

What I see most commonly is significant gingivitis and decalcification (white spots on teeth) which lead to eventual decay in many cases. This is almost always in kids, and their parents are investing thousands of dollars in the hugely beneficial transformation of orthodontics only to have that awesome result marred by unsightly white marks.

Sugar flips certain metabolic switches in your body, most with an undesirable outcome.

Ok, so if that’s not enough motivation, what other “immediate” effects are there for kids (and their parents) who likely won’t see the long term effects of excess sugar consumption for decades?

Parents, pay attention:

  • Cause Learning Disorders (#31)
  • Adversely Affect Grades in School (#73)
  • Depression (#74)
  • Reduces Learning Capacity (#79)
  • Addictive (#94)
  • Intoxicating, similar to Alcohol (#95)
  • Decrease emotional stability (#97)
  • Promotes excessive food intake (#98)
  • Worsen symptoms of ADD (#99)
  • Cause and Continuation of Acne (#133)
  • Cause fatigue, moodiness, nervousness (#134)
  • Impairs spatial memory (#142)

There are 129 more reasons to be concerned about as well.

Yes, sugar is a hard habit to kick.

Functional MRI studies of the brain show that reward centers light up after sugar is ingested. It’s an addictive substance, and studies using rats have resulted in the rats choosing sugar over cocaine when given a choice!

Read labels and look at the sugar content of what you and your kids are eating. Let’s take one example: Fruit juices are one of the biggest mistakes parents make, it’s mostly hyper-concentrated sugar and I see it in baby bottles in my office often, usually by parents toting some 30oz+ sugary drink themselves. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there’s “no nutritional reason to give fruit juice before the age of one”. CBS News reported on this topic over ten years ago

Ask yourself “Would I want to pour TABLESPOONS of sugar directly in to my mouth?”

I find that thinking in terms of tablespoons of white sugar really hits home for me. Want the numbers? The amount of sugar in 16 oz of Apple Juice is the SAME as in 16 oz Coca Cola: 52g. That’s 3.4 tablespoons of sugar Do you really want to eat nearly a quarter of a cup of sugar?

If you want fruit, eat the whole fruit which makes it somewhat better (23g of sugar in an apple).  Many fruits can’t be considered super healthy food – look at their sugar contents  I know, that realization was a hard one to “swallow” for me too. I forget where I heard the quote, but the research backs it up: “an apple a day keeps the doctor paid”. It’s maybe not the sugars in the apple per se that’s causing the majority of the problem, but it’s just adding sugar to an already hyper-consumed ingredient in most American’s diets.

Yes, I’m going to be eating cake for my birthday this week, maybe pumpkin cheesecake which my wife makes from pumpkins in our garden, yum! Yes, my kids will go trick or treating on Halloween and they’ll get candy. I see the effects of that sugar immediately because their norm is a lower than average (not zero) sugar diet than most. Candy is a rare treat and they won’t get to eat it all, I can’t allow that given what I know. On top of it, candy is “ultra-processed” and most of the ingredients didn’t even exist a few generations ago.

I watch overall sugar content for myself and my family. For others, it may come down to the “everything in moderation theory” although with sugar moderation may even be giving it a bit more than it should.

Do your research, look at the effects and the benefits of being aware of what sugar does to you and your kid’s bodies instead of blindly and subconsciously agreeing with the marketing campaign of companies that produce the products. That’s my perspective anyway, then we’ll have straight AND good looking teeth when we’re done. You and your kids will thank you, sooner AND later.

Dr. John

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