What That Halloween Candy Is Doing To Your Teeth And Skin
Halloween (i.e. your annual excuse get a sugar high) is here, which means you are likely loading up on your favorite candied confections. And, while we don’t wish to rain on your sweet tooth parade, sugar isn’t always our friend.
In addition to contributing to health concerns like weight gain and heart disease, sugar — especially the refined kind found in processed sweet treats — can also play a role in exacerbating skin concerns like acne. Oh, and then there is the impact on your pearly whites. As your mom probably warned you growing up, sugar can lead to tooth decay.
Fortunately, there are ways to consume sweets that will minimize your risk of breaking out or harming your teeth. Before you let loose and dive into the candy bowl today, let’s talk about how to combat the effects of sugar on the body.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a class of carbohydrates that comes in many forms and appears under many names. Sugar can be naturally occurring — like the kind found in fruits (fructose) or in milk (lactose) — or it can be added as sweeteners to foods during processing or preparation. These added sugars can be natural or chemically manufactured.
When reading nutrition labels, identifying sugars can be a complex task. There are more than 50 names under which sugar can appear, but, generally speaking, most of the names will end in ‘-ose’ (think: fructose, glucose, maltose, etc.) or ‘syrup’ (e.g. brown rice syrup, corn syrup, malt syrup, etc.).
Another important note: Not all sugars are equal.
If given the option, you should always choose sugar that comes from whole foods, is naturally occurring or raw, or is minimally processed. While everyone rolls their eyes at the neighbor who gives out raisins on Halloween, it is certainly the better option for nutritionally satisfying your sugar habit.
What is sugar’s effect on skin?
While most people associate fatty and oily foods with acne, they often overlook sugar. Unfortunately, diets with too much sugar are increasingly linked to breakouts. “Sugar is a stronger culprit in exacerbating acne breakouts,” says board certified dermatologist Sapna Palep, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology in NYC.
According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, sugary foods that cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels can cause increased androgen secretion and oil production, which can result in acne.
Sugary foods usually fall on the high side of the glycemic index, meaning they raise blood sugar levels more quickly than those foods that are lower on the glycemic index. With this in mind, most Halloween candy is going to fall into that ‘high glycemic index’ category. To avoid the spike in blood sugar, it is important to balance out the excessive sugar intake. Strategically adding fiber into the diet, for example, can help to slow down digestion. In other words, feel free to have a couple pieces of Halloween candy — but counter it with fibrous foods like nuts.
“I like to recommend my patients eat low glycemic fruits, swap out soda for water or green tea, and consume low glycemic milk alternatives,” Dr. Palep says. “If you just ate a lot of sugar and are at risk for a breakout, the best preventative measures are exercising, hydrating, eating fatty foods to slow down the insulin spike, getting a good night’s sleep to prevent cortisol rise, and rebalancing the next day with a low sugar, nutrient-rich diet.”
When monitoring your sugar intake, it is important to not be fooled by misleading food labels. Pay attention to buzzwords like ‘sugar free,’ ‘reduced sugar,’ ‘without added sugars,’ or ‘low sugar.’ As the American Heart Association explains, each of these claims has a unique definition, some of which are better than others. At the end of the day, foods that are closest to how they are found in nature tend to have a lower glycemic index than their refined and processed counterparts.
What is sugar’s effect on teeth?
Your parents likely warned you that eating too much candy would lead to a mouth full of cavities. But is that myth true? The short answer is yes — though it is a little more complicated.
Sugar itself does not cause cavities, but it does attract harmful bacteria that lowers your mouth’s pH and, in turn, causes tooth decay. The bad bacteria feed on the sugar in your mouth and form plaque (i.e. the sticky film that sometimes covers the front of your teeth). Generally speaking, plaque is harmless. If it is not brushed away, however, it can begin to lower the pH in the mouth. As the pH lowers, the acidity can demineralize the teeth and lead to cavities.
“Cavities are holes in the tooth structure that form when acid breaks down the enamel,” New York City-based dentist Alina Lane, DDS, explains. “Foods that have sugar in them are especially cariogenic or cavity forming. There are over 500 different types of bacteria that grow in our mouths. These bacteria consume sugar and break it down into acids, which in turn break down the tooth structure.”
According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, diets full of high-sugar food, beverages, or gum impact the integrity of the teeth. On the beverage front, it is best to avoid sodas, energy or sports drinks, and fruit juices. Not only are they full of excess sugar, but they typically have higher acid content that can contribute to a lower pH.
In addition to sugary drinks, Dr. Lane warns against higher pH drinks in general — even if they are ‘healthy.’
Exhibit A: your lemon water habit.
“Lemon water is a very popular beverage among our health-conscious patients. Although it may be good for providing vitamin C, improving digestion, and weight loss, lemon juice is extremely acidic and will soften the enamel on your teeth,” Dr. Lane warns. “It is common to see extensive enamel loss on the insides of teeth in patients that drink this every morning. The enamel loss is often exacerbated when the teeth are brushed immediately after drinking lemon water, since the softer enamel can be brushed away. One tip I give my lemon water drinkers is to drink an alkaline beverage, such as alkaline water, to reduce the acidity in their mouths and to avoid brushing their teeth for an hour after drinking lemon water.”
In terms of food, Dr. Lane says that the stickier, harder, and sweeter the food, the more harmful it is to the teeth. Dried fruits, gummy snacks, chew candies, and lollipops all can get stuck in the grooves of the teeth and, therefore, stay in your mouth longer.
“Imagine eating something sticky and sugary like an Oreo cookie. After you have finished swallowing the sweet crumbs, you look at your teeth and see that your molars are covered in a black cookie residue,” she explains. “Now, imagine biting into and eating a crisp, fresh apple. After you have chewed through half of the apple, you look at your teeth again and see that they are no longer covered in cookie. The takeaway — besides the idea that you should eat dessert first — is that some foods are more cleansing than others. Although the apple has sugar, it is fibrous and cleansing to the grooves in the teeth.”
On the flipside of cariogenic (read: cavity-causing) foods like sugary, processed snacks are the cariostatic ones that can actually help ward against cavities. “Generally, vegetables are the best foods for your teeth because of their low sugar and high fiber content,” says Dr. Lane. “Dairy products that are low in sugar, such as cheese, can also help to off-set cavities.”
And, it goes without saying, but maintaining good oral hygiene (think: brushing, flossing, and regular dental checkups) is key to keeping the teeth and gums healthy. Remember to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss regularly — especially if you have been consuming cariogenic foods and beverages.
For most of us, sugar cravings aren’t limited to Halloween. So, when your sweet tooth inevitably kicks in and you’re longing for a sugary drink or snack, remember there are steps you can take to limit the damage to your skin, teeth, and body. Whether you’re looking to prevent cavities or avoid breakouts, balancing your sugar intake with high-fiber foods that are low on the glycemic index will help to maintain the mouth’s pH and prevent blood sugar spikes that can lead to acne.