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Does Diet Have Any Effect On Oral Health?

It comes as no surprise that the popular adage “You are what you eat” depicts the notion that to be fit and healthy, you need to eat good food. The food you eat can have an effect on your heart, liver and kidneys. The mouth, being the gateway to the human body, also takes a fair share of the effects of bad diet. Diets in sub-Saharan African are rapidly changing as more countries advance from low-income to middle-income status. This is translated into people’s eating habits shifting from food rich in vegetables, fruits and starch to a more westernised diet high in sugar, saturated fats and oils. In today’s segment of Teethlicious Toothday, I would be expatiating on the impact of sugary foods and beverages on our oral health.

The most significant effect of diet is in the mouth, mainly in the development of tooth decay, often referred to as “kaka” in the local Asante Twi dialect, and enamel erosion. According to literature, tooth decay has been reported to incur some US$298 billion in direct treatment alone to the global economy, making up a proportionate 4.6% of worldwide health expenditures. A recent study done by Blankson et al on the prevalence of oral conditions and associated factors among school children in Accra revealed the prevalence of tooth decay to be 13.3%. Tooth decay occurs due to the loss of tooth substance (enamel and dentine) by acids produced by bacteria in dental plaque. What happens is that the bacteria in our mouths process the sugars derived from diet into acids that gradually cause damage to the teeth over a period of time. In some cases, it is reversible. Early stages of tooth decay are usually without symptoms because the decay is often confined to the outer layer of the tooth, termed as the enamel. Advanced stages of tooth decay may lead to pain, infections, abscesses and even sepsis. This may result in having to undergo a complex dental procedure called a root canal treatment or possibly having to take out the tooth (tooth extraction).

Factors that have direct influence on the incidence and progression of tooth decay include the nature of the food (sticky foods are often the major culprits), frequency of taking the sugary meal or beverage, the nutritional makeup of the food and the combination of the foods you eat, the order and time at which you eat them. It is often recommended that you limit snacking in between meals because snacking promotes tooth decay. However, if you do snack, make a nutritious choice by selecting cheese, plain yoghurt, low fat milk and fruits rather than sweets, cookies, cakes, caramel, soft drinks and chips. Sugar-containing drinks such as soda, lemonade, sweetened coffee or tea are harmful because sipping them causes a constant sugar bath over your  teeth, promoting tooth decay. Dried fruits like raisins are good choices for a healthy diet but since they are sticky and adhere to teeth, the harmful bacteria in our mouths also feed on them and produce acids that continue to harm your teeth long after you stop eating them. Fruits and vegetables are good for a healthy smile since they are high in water and fiber which balance the sugars they contain and help to clean the teeth. Fruits and vegetables also help stimulate saliva production which washes harmful acids and food particles away from teeth and helps neutralize acid, protecting teeth from decay.

Limit added sugars in your diet by reading food and beverage labels to determine the amount of added sugar. A tip for spotting sources of sugar is by looking out for terms on the ingredients section ending with “-ose.” This indicates a sugar ingredient. Common added sugars include maltose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, raw sugar, cane sugar, corn sweeteners, corn syrup, dextrin, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, molasses and maple syrup.

The second effect of diet to oral health is enamel erosion. It is the progressive irreversible loss of the enamel by acids from dietary acids and gastric acids. Enamel erosion reduces the size of the teeth and in severe cases leads to total tooth destruction. Sources of dietary tooth erosion include soft drinks, acidic fruit juices, acidic sugar-free drinks, energy drinks and sports drinks. Nevertheless, people with diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), anorexia nervosa and eating disorders such as bulimia suffer from tooth erosion due to contents of the stomach being regurgitated. When the contents of the stomach come in direct contact with the teeth, it wears away the teeth because the acid produced in the stomach during the digestive process is sufficiently powerful to dissolve any food, including bone and teeth.

In conclusion, many health providers are of the opinion that African countries should impose heavy taxes on sugar-sweetened foods and beverages to discourage consumption and reduce health risks. This may curb obesity-related chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer as well as tooth decay. In South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Latin America and the Caribbean, taxing sugary drinks to reduce consumption has been effective. But can this be effectively replicated in Ghana?

Thanks for reading.

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