Tooth decay in the general population can be traced to changes in the quality of foods that we eat
By Dr Ronald Reagan Mutebi
We are taught from an early age that proper oral health is maintaining healthy teeth. The simple acts of brushing and flossing are instilled in us so that we maintain our “snow-white teeth”; yet, oral health is much more than clean teeth. It also involves wellbeing of the gums and all the supporting tissues, tongue, lining of the mouth and salivary glands. In its simplicity, oral health has been a neglected topic yet diseases affecting the organs of mouth are increasing each day. According to the World Health Organisation, oral diseases affect 3.9 billion people worldwide; with untreated tooth decay impacting almost half (44%) of the world's population. In 2017, a study done in Uganda indicated that tooth decay was the commonest reason for one to visit a dentist; existed in seven (6) out of ten (10) adult individuals; yet, it remained the most common chronic disease in children.
More difficult is that adequate dental services are not readily available in most public health facilities whereby design, such services are only provided from health centre IV to hospital levels. Subsequently, dental services remain dominated by private practitioners who mostly practice in urban areas and whose fees are too high for the average Ugandan without insurance coverage. This leaves most people (especially children and the elderly) in rural areas and of low social economic status at a disadvantage in dental care. The consequences are known; the longer a cavity (hole) in a tooth remains untreated, the larger and more difficult to repair it becomes. In the end, a person lives with chronic pain, felt mostly from the affected lower side of the face and loss of the tooth.
Given this status quo, prevention is the best approach. Public health programs on prevention of tooth decay have long been known and often implemented at policy level such as adding the mineral ‘fluorine’ that prevents tooth decay to water and toothpaste. Other practices like brushing and choice of food to eat are concerned with individual behaviour and likely to vary from one person to another. With a background knowledge of the importance of maintaining a good diet in the prevention of most disease conditions, today, I will emphasize how the food you eat determines the “goodness” of your teeth.
“I tell you most solemnly that your poor diet is the root cause to this horrific and painful condition that you’re suffering from; your tooth decay has been brought about by acids from bacteria that feed on sugars found in your diet!” These acids cause the removal of calcium from the hard parts of your tooth, leaving a hole behind. The ensuing “horrific pain” results from continuous injury to the exposed nerve endings; too painful most times! For the same reason, research has shown us that communities with very low levels of tooth decay are the ones with traditional lifestyles and low consumption of sugars. Indeed, as economic conditions improve and quantity of sugars increase in diet, a noticeable increase in tooth decay is noticed.
So here are 6 simple ways you can use your diet to prevent tooth decay:
1. Increase eating foods rich in fibre content as this will reduce the absorption of sugars contained in other foods. These include green leafy vegetables like sukuma wiki, ddodo, and nakati.
2. Prioritize traditional wholesome meals over snacks (junk foods) as they will require more time chewing and this stimulates saliva production which subsequently can kill some bacteria. For example, you could choose a meal of matooke, Sukuma wiki, and groundnut sauce instead of soda and cake. In addition, the soda in that last choice of meal has acids which can damage the covering of the tooth (enamel).
3. Enjoy cow’s milk! It’s high in calcium, phosphorus and casein which inhibit tooth decay.
4. Drink black tea, this will increase the concentration of fluorine in plaques (food substances on teeth) and help prevent bacteria from multiplying.
5. Eat orange foods like carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. They are rich in vitamin A which keeps the gums healthy and builds the tooth enamel.
6. Lastly, Fluorine remains the milestone in the prevention and control of tooth decay. When buying, check the water or toothpaste if it contains fluorine.
In conclusion, tooth decay in the general population can be traced to changes in the quality of foods that we eat. Hence, a careful modification of your diet will prevent you and your family from tooth decay, save you money, and effort in seeking dental services.
The writer is a Field Epidemiology Fellow at the Uganda Public Health Fellowship Program, Ministry of Health