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The Unsweetened Truth: Pregnancy, Sugar and Oral Health

by Sheila Wolf, RDH

A glazed doughnut or a wedge of apple pie might be what we choose for a mid-morning munch. Unfortunately, these snacks contain refined sugar that is not only bad for your teeth and gums, but also for your pregnancy. Sugar, sometimes disguised as sucrose, dextrose, or glucose, provides empty calories, adds weight, and can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis.

We Americans eat entirely too much sugar — almost 7 tablespoons per person per day. Depending on who’s doing the research, that could be anywhere from 64 to 150 pounds per year. These “empty” spoonfuls contribute no nutrition or fiber and crowd out nutritious fare from your diet. In the presence of certain bacteria in the mouth, sugar leads to the production of toxic bacterial byproducts that are very acidic. These toxins, if allowed to sit on the enamel of your teeth, cause caries (cavities). If not removed properly from along the gum line and in between the teeth, they irritate the gums and will ultimately erode the supporting bone that anchors the teeth in the mouth. A mother-to-be is more susceptible to dental problems due to the excessive hormones circulating in her system. According to the Surgeon General’s report in 2000, “toxins or other products generated by periodontal (around the teeth) bacteria in the mother may reach the general circulation, cross the placenta, and harm the fetus.” Pregnant women with severe gum infections are seven times more prone to having a baby that is premature. Prevention and early diagnosis of dental decay and gingivitis (swollen, tender gums) are important for your health as well as your baby’s. So, what can you do about assuring good nutrition and oral health during pregnancy? Here are three tips from my book, Pregnancy and Oral Health that will make a difference right away:

Healthy Snack Alternatives

Here is a list of healthy snack ideas to replace those quick, convenient, sugary ones that contribute to dental decay:

  • Yogurt with fresh fruit
  • Unprocessed cheese
  • Brown Rice, whole grain bagels, whole wheat toast, or bran muffins with cream cheese, peanut butter, or fruit spread
  • Homemade frozen popsicles, using one 6oz. can frozen concentrated juice mixed with a small container (6-8 oz) of plain yogurt. I used to give these to my son when he was teething. They were yummy for both of us!
  • Baked apples or other baked or stewed fruit
  • Fresh fruit (Choose from a range of colors to ensure variety of nutrients and vitamins)
  • Fruit smoothies, homemade, using yogurt and banana as your base. Add other fruit and flavorings with ice to make a delicious drink
  • Unsweetened whole grain cereals with yogurt and fresh fruit.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Celery with peanut butter (my personal favorite).
  • Raw carrot sticks, cucumber slices, green pepper wedges — or any fresh vegetables, for that matter. Serve with a dip made from ground garbanzo beans (hummus), yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese with herbs.

When you indulge:

When you do indulge in a sugary treat, it is better to do it all in one sitting rather than to sip on a soda or take tiny bites of sweet things all day long. (One soda has on the average of 12 teaspoons of sugar). Eating tiny bursts of sweets throughout your day is more injurious to your oral health since every time you introduce sugar into your mouth, the bacteria are nourished for about 20 minutes.

Brushing or swishing:

Brush as quickly as possible after eating or drinking anything with a high content of sugar. If that is not possible, I recommend taking a swig of water, swishing it around your mouth and swallowing. By keeping these residues at a very low level, you reduce the nutrients that many plaque-forming bacteria depend on for their growth and survival.

About the Author
Sheila Wolf, affectionately known to her patients and colleagues as Mama Gums, has been a dental hygienist for 32 years, educating and motivating people on both coasts to take control of their oral health. You can read more about the critical link between a healthy mouth and a healthy baby at her website, and in her book, Pregnancy and Oral Health: The Critical Connection Between Your Mouth and Your Baby, available through bookstores in June 2004 and on Sheila invites questions and can be reached at 866 MAMA-GUMs or through her website.

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