Sugar: The common risk factor between rising obesity rates and declining oral health

Sugar: The common risk factor between rising obesity rates and declining oral health

The connection between sugar intake and dental decay is so well-documented that it rarely raises an eyebrow these days.

However, despite what we know to be true, many of us are still consuming quantities of sugar that far exceed recommended limits. It seems that the ‘dental story’ alone just doesn’t cut it – despite all the evidence that says we are putting our teeth at risk.

Those 32 bony structures that contribute to a beautiful smile, our enjoyment of food and our quality of life, can become diseased in front of our very eyes – and yet we hardly draw pause, other than when we are faced with huge dental bills.

However, the tide has now started to turn. Although we have known for decades that too much sugar contributes to dental decay, it has only been in more recent years that sugar’s reputation has begun to take a hit. This is not because having beautiful teeth has suddenly became more relevant (although the rise of online pics and selfies tells a different story!) – it is because sugar is now identified as a major risk factor for unwanted weight gain and all the consequences that may occur as a result, such as Type 2 Diabetes, which in many countries is regarded as an epidemic. Hardly a week goes by that we aren’t faced with messages, articles and advice from all corners of the media on the benefits of reducing our intake, and the risks we face if we do not.

Health advice in previous decades painted dietary FAT as the root of all evil, and had us cutting down on our total fat intake in an effort to prevent weight gain and promote a healthy heart. The food industry responded by producing vast varieties of low-fat substitutes – which were packed with sugar to improve flavour. But, as the global obesity epidemic continued to increase at alarming rates, despite the popularity of the low-fat diet, attention was returned to the sugar-laden foods many of us had welcomed into our diets.

Nowadays, dietary guidelines have been revised to promote healthy intake of good fats, while still advising caution not to overeat fats associated with health risks. Dietary guidelines also advise that we restrict our daily intake of added sugars to 10% or less of our total energy needs. For adults, this is about 60g sugar or 12 teaspoons, per day. It’s important to have an idea of what that looks like in real life – one small flavoured yoghurt can contain up to 25g of added sugar, and a chocolate-flavoured milk up to 36g sugar.

The WHO has suggested that we could lower our intakes even further, especially in young children where a drop to 5% of total energy is recommended. Unfortunately, many of the foods targeted at children, such as breakfast cereals, snack foods and convenience items, contain very high quantities of sugar, despite often being labelled as ‘healthy’.

So, is sugar the sole cause of our expanding waist lines and deteriorating dental health? In short, no. It would be inaccurate and narrow minded to lay the entire blame on sugar, as both obesity and dental decay have multiple causes that may contribute. Sugar is, however, a dietary risk factor that has become a more relevant issue for our health, as sugar-laden products continue to proliferate our supermarkets, and our intakes exceed our needs.

To support your health and oral health it is recommended to follow some easy, sustainable food rules. Aim to have three healthy meals most days, with no more than two healthy low-sugar snacks, such as a small serving of nuts, fresh fruit, veggies with humus, tzatziki, avo or salsa dip, cheese and wholegrain crackers, milk or plain yoghurt. Limit your intake of sugary products and, when you do get the urge, try and consume sugary foods with your main meal, rather than in between.

And finally, what may be the biggest game changer for some, is to replace all sweetened drinks with water.

Research into the health risks associated with excess sugar intake and the recent push to declare added sugars on food packaging are to be applauded. From what I see day to day in my consulting room, providing Australians with the option to quickly and easily see how much sugar has been added to products, could further assist in making healthier choices.

So consider sugar when you consider your health, and make a concerted effort to minimise your consumption. The benefits of a healthy weight and a healthy smile cannot be underestimated.


The Oral Health Advisory Panel (OHAP), is a group of independent healthcare professionals with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of good oral health and its impact on general wellness.  The Panel aims to take oral health beyond the dental clinic.

Follow the Oral Health Advisory Panel via twitter @OHAPanel to stay up to date with practical advice on good oral health habits.