Taming a Sugar Monster

Taming a Sugar Monster

Most of us get concerned about our children's sugar intake at this time of year.  We didn't want their Halloween treats to play tricks with their dental health and all the extra treats from the holiday season are just around the corner.  However, if we're really honest, we have to admit that sweets are often a common part of a child's everyday life; from the daily "snack" at preschool, kindergarten or daycare, "reward treats" at school, Grandma's cookies and birthday party "loot", sugar is not something easily avoided.  To add to this, sugar is found in many places you might not expect.  For example, sugar is found in condiments, canned goods and dairy products.  The trick is to understand the facts about sweets and what part they can play in a healthy child's diet.

One of the first things you must understand in order to tame the sugar monster's destruction is to understand that the quantity of sugar he eats at any one time is less important than how often he is eating them.  For example, it may surprise you to know that sipping orange juice all morning will cause much more extensive damage to teeth than eating a whole bag of candy in one sitting.  In the same context, sucking on a lollipop or hard candy off and on for hours creates much more damage than just letting your child eat the whole lollipop.  The explanation for this is simple.  Every time sugar is eaten, it mixes with the bacteria in your mouth and creates powerful acids that are capable of breaking down tooth enamel.  These harmful acids remain in the mouth for about twenty minutes after each snack.  Sugar is sugar whether it's candy, or orange juice or starchy food, like bread or cookies.

The first rule is therefore to "get it over with".  Have the treat in one sitting, not over a prolonged period.  The second rule should be no snacking before bed or sipping on a bottle throughout the night.  This is because the saliva that normally serves as a protection by gently washing food particles away is less active at night and the plaque-acid attack lasts all night.  Third, you should teach your child to brush his or her teeth after snacks and meals.  When this isn't possible they should at least rinse out afterward with water.  Chewing sugarless gum after rinsing out can also help decrease acid attacks by increasing saliva flow and lowering pH levels.  Fourth, try to encourage candy treats to be eaten at the end of a meal when an acid-plaque attack is already in progress, rather than randomly throughout the day.  Again, have them brush and floss after eating.

Remember that sugar is sugar and there is no benefit to giving your child honey or molasses as opposed to refined sugars if you're thinking that alone will protect his teeth.  In terms of nutrition, you do not want a child to eat sweets all day and miss out on the nutrients in other foods.

However, keep in mind that if you withhold candy or label foods "bad" you may just make them more determined to get to it.  As long as your child is eating a proper amount of protein, vegetables and fruit, you should not consider candy a forbidden food.  Keep healthy snack choices in sight and remember that, it is less likely your child will be grabbing sweet snacks if you provide regular nutritious meals and snacks.  When they do eat candy, follow the rules I've outlined above and you'll avoid the continuous plaque attacks that lead to tooth decay.

Dr. Stephen Petras

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