How Sugar and Diet Influence the Development of Cavities

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Dental cavities are a significant global health concern and the most common noncommunicable disease (NCD). They’re ranked first for permanent teeth decay (affecting 2.3 billion people) and twelfth for deciduous teeth (560 million children), as seen in the 2015 Global Burden of Disease Study.

Although genetics and brushing your teeth are some reasons affecting this, sugar consumption can also be a plus factor. Learn below how sugar and diet can influence dental cavities

What is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay or ‘dental caries’ happens when acid made by bacteria in the mouth attacks the teeth’ enamel and dentine, which makes holes or cavities. How this happens:

  1. This acid comes from bacteria in plaque, a thin and sticky film that forms on the teeth. It happens when you eat sugary foods. 
  2. The acid gradually eats away at the enamel, causing holes or cavities in the teeth. This leads to tooth decay, which causes your tooth to be extracted.

Even though tooth decay has decreased over the years, it’s still one of the most common issues worldwide, next to the common cold. About 1 in 3 adults and close to 1 in 4 children have some form of tooth decay.


Sugar and Tooth Decay

Sugar in food and drinks is a big reason why people get cavities. Bacteria in plaque use sugar to make acid, which slowly wears away the enamel on teeth.


Here are some studies by different organizations:

World Health Organization (WHO) They found that eating a lot of sugar causes cavities. They also found that having less than 10% of your energy from sugar can help prevent cavities. Cavities worsen as you age, and eating less sugar can help prevent cavities. Having less than 5% of your energy from sugar might be even better.
Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) They looked at studies that showed eating sugary foods and drinks makes cavities more likely in kids. They found that kids who drink sugary drinks more often tend to get more cavities.
National Library of Medicine (NLM)

Scholars from the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran looked at how much sugary foods children aged 6 to 12 eat and how it relates to getting cavities

It’s shown that kids who drink 100% juice every day, eat candy more than once a week, and have soft drinks or sweet drinks before bed tend to get cavities more often. Drinking water and eating dairy products every day protect against cavities.

Who’s Vulnerable to Tooth Decay?

Everyone can get cavities, but kids and teenagers are most likely to. Cavities affect almost half the world’s population, which makes it a common health issue. Most cavities can also happen in adults because they build up over time. 

In 2010, it cost about $298 billion to treat cavities worldwide directly. And there were additional costs of $144 billion for things like missed work or school. Overall, cavities cost about $442 billion in 2010.


Here’s a list of people vulnerable to tooth decay:


Kids are particularly vulnerable to tooth decay because their teeth are still developing and may not have established proper oral hygiene habits yet.


Teenagers consume sugary snacks and drinks frequently, which can level up the risk of developing cavities.


Cavities can affect adults of all ages, especially if they have undesirable oral hygiene habits or consume a diet high in sugars.

People Who Consume High Levels of Sugar

Those who consume sugary foods and drinks are at a higher risk of accumulating tooth decay because sugar fuels the bacteria in the mouth that cause cavities.

People Who Consume Sticky or Sugary Foods Between Meals

Consuming sugary foods between meals can increase the time that teeth are exposed to sugars.


Smoking can weaken one’s immune system and increase the likelihood of gum disease, contributing to tooth decay.


Alcohol can dry out the mouth and lessen saliva production. Hence, it’s easier for bacteria to thrive and cause cavities.

People from Lower-Income Households

Socioeconomic factors can impact access to dental care and nutritious foods, which increases the risk of tooth decay for those from lower-income households.

Those with Poor Oral Hygiene Practices

Not brushing/cleaning and flossing regularly lets plaque and bacteria accumulate on the teeth, which increases the risk of cavities.


Dietary Factors Influencing Cavity Development

While sugar is a major contributor, other dietary factors also influence cavity development:

  • Frequent taking of sugary or acidic foods and beverages exposes the teeth to prolonged periods of acid attacks, which increases the risk of cavities.
  • Sticky candies, dried fruits, and chewy snacks adhere to the teeth, prolonging exposure to sugars and acids.
  • Inadequate intake of nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D can weaken tooth enamel.
  • Foods and beverages with low pH levels, such as citrus fruits and vinegar-based dressings, contribute to enamel erosion.


To maintain optimal oral health, take sugar moderately and choose tooth-friendly foods. To illustrate the sugar content in common foods, refer to the following table:

Food ItemSugar Content (per serving)
Soda (12 oz)39 grams
Candy Bar24 grams
Fruit Juice (8 oz)26 grams
Chocolate Chip Cookie12 grams
Apple19 grams
Carrot6 grams


Can Saliva Influence Cavity Prevention?

Yes, saliva is important for preventing cavities. It helps keep your teeth safe by:

  • Neutralizing Acids: Saliva has bicarbonate ions that balance out the acids made by bacteria in your mouth. This stops the acids from wearing away your tooth enamel.
  • Strengthening Enamel: Saliva has minerals like calcium and phosphate that can repair and strengthen your tooth enamel after it’s been weakened by acid.
  • Cleaning Away Food: Saliva washes away bits of food and bacteria from your mouth so they don’t stick to your teeth and cause cavities.
  • Fighting Bacteria: Saliva has substances that kill the bacteria that cause cavities, which keep your mouth healthy.

Reminder: Keep your mouth moist by drinking enough water and cleaning your teeth to stop cavities.

Dietary Tips

We eat too much sugar, according to reports from the WHO and SACN. They say we should limit sugar to 5% of our energy intake. That’s about 7 teaspoons or 30g of sugar for adults daily. 

For kids aged 5-11, it’s 24g, and for kids aged 4-6, it’s 19g. This limit is much lower than what most people currently eat. It’s also believed that sticking to this limit could stop obesity rates from increasing.

To prevent cavities, you can also:

  • Brush your teeth well twice a day with toothpaste that has fluoride.
  • Floss your teeth every day.
  • Eat fewer sticky foods with sugar, and rinse your mouth with water after eating them.
  • Snack less to reduce acid in your mouth.
  • Drink fewer sugary drinks.
  • Eat sugary foods only during meals.

Note: Whole fruit is not bad for your teeth.


Cavity Treatment


Get Immediate Dental Care 

Are you dealing with dental cavities and unsure of what steps to take next? At Westgate Dental Centre, we take professional processes to address it. If you have tooth pain, swelling, or any other urgent dental problem, our skilled team is ready to help immediately. 

It’s important not to wait if you have a dental issue, as getting help early can stop things from worsening and ensure your teeth stay healthy. If you need dental care fast, contact Westgate Dental Centre today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Sugars from various sources, including sucrose (table sugar), glucose, fructose, and lactose, can contribute to cavities. However, sugars that cling to the teeth, such as those found in candies, sodas, and sweets, tend to be more harmful as they provide a sustained food source for bacteria in the mouth.

While artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose don’t directly contribute to cavity formation because bacteria can’t metabolize them, consider overall dietary habits. Some foods containing artificial sweeteners may still be acidic or contain other ingredients that can impact dental health.

Poor nutrition, characterized by a diet lacking nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins, can weaken tooth enamel and compromise the body’s ability to fight oral bacteria. Individuals with poor nutrition may also experience weakened immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to oral infections and cavities.

Some natural remedies, such as xylitol, a sugar alcohol found in certain fruits and vegetables, have been shown to inhibit bacterial growth and promote saliva production, thus reducing cavity risk. However, it’s important to use alternative sweeteners in moderation and maintain good oral hygiene practices for optimal dental health.

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