Sugar and Tooth Decay – The Lowdown

Over the lockdown periods, the latest National Diet and Nutrition survey showed the average adult consumed around 12 teaspoons of sugar a day – that’s’ double the RDA. Of course, there are always going to be occasions where we break through the RDA sugar ceiling, but doing this on a regular basis risks problems like tooth decay, cavities, and even tooth loss. Throw bad brushing habits and failing to drink enough water into the mix, and you risk accelerating and worsening potential problems. If you’re concerned about your sugar consumption or unsure of the best techniques and lifestyle habits that will help keep decay at bay, read on for advice and support.

Stages of tooth decay

All decay starts with the buildup of plaque, a sticky film that coats the surface of your teeth overtime – everyone has some degree of plaque throughout their lifetimes. Plaque is comprised of food particles and should be routinely removed by your hygienist, during a scale and polish. Eating high sugar foods and failing to visit the hygienist and dentist will result in the following stages of tooth decay:

Initial demineralisation

The protective layer of your teeth is known as tooth enamel and plays an essential role in protecting your teeth from decay – it’s the hardest tissue in your body, and is made up of minerals. When your teeth are regularly exposed to acids (made by plaque bacteria), enamel begins to lose its essential minerals, which leaves white spots across the affected teeth. This is the first sign of tooth decay.

Enamel decay

Failing to address tooth decay at this stage, will cause tooth enamel to break down further – the white spots may now begin to turn to a brownish colour. When enamel begins to weaken, small holes (cavities) will start to form, and these require attention right away.

Dentin decay

Dentin is the substance that lies under tooth enamel, and as it’s softer, it’s far more prone to erosion from the acids that are created when you eat. When the level of decay reaches this stage, it can accelerate quickly when it reaches the dentin, which is made up of tubes, connecting to the nerves in a tooth. This is the stage at which you’ll notice sensitivity, particularly when consuming hot and cold food and drink.

Pulp damage

The pulp is the inner layer of a tooth, where the nerve and blood vessels live. It’s this part of a tooth’s anatomy that ensures it stays healthy, and provide sensation in a tooth. You’ll find that if your pulp becomes damaged, the tooth becomes irritated, will begin to swell and cause intense pain.


Tooth decay will continue to progress to the pulp in your tooth and cause an infection. As a result, inflammation will occur, forming a pus-filled pocket at the base of your tooth, known as an abscess. Swelling of the face, jaw and lymph nodes can result in extreme discomfort and if things reach this stage, you should make an emergency appointment right away. If we’re able to, we will perform a root canal, to salvage the tooth, clearing out the infection and preserving its structure. Depending on the extent of the infection, we may have to remove your tooth altogether, though this is always a last resort. Should you need the tooth removed, we recommend single dental implants, which are widely regarded as the next best thing to a real tooth.

If we know sugar is bad for our teeth, why do we still eat it?

In 2021 Britain, it’s unlikely there are many people left (if any) who don’t know the risk of over consuming sugar. But if we all know sugar is no friend to our teeth, then why are we still eating it? During lockdown, one of the many pleasures we’ve still been able to enjoy is eating, and sugar provides an instant hit that lights up the pleasure areas of the brain, but also brings our serotonin levels crashing down shortly afterwards, leaving us craving more sugar. This vicious cycle can easily lead to overconsumption, putting dental health at risk.

How to keep decay at bay

  • Brush and floss: for many, brushing and flossing twice and once a day respectively may sound obvious, but 25% of Brits don’t brush twice a day!
  • Limit the sugar: it may be delicious, and even addictive, but your teeth will thank you for limiting the sugar in the long run. The less sugar you eat, the less overworked your mouth is, which brings us nicely on to the next linked pointer.
  • Eat at the right time of the day: we often hear that we should be sticking to 3 meals a day for our waistlines, but did you know this is also an important rule to follow if you want to keep dental problems at bay? This is because each time you eat foods (particularly high sugar foods), your mouth has to work to convert these into acids, which slowly erodes your teeth overtime. By sticking to eating 3 meals a day, you’re not overworking your mouth and the chance of decay becomes slimmer.
  • Become best friends with water: which brings us to hydration. When you are eating your 3 meals a day, you should be endeavouring to wash these down with water, which will cleanse your mouth of bacteria and loose food particles, both of which are responsible for the accumulation of plaque.

If you would like to book a routine hygienist or dentist appointment, please don’t hesitate to contact us, here at our Norwich dental practice.