Sugar: A Plague for Athletes

Posted by: Charlie Burrows

Most of us think of tooth decay or oral health problems occurring in the elderly or those with no access to a local dentist, or even in those patients who don’t brush their teeth and have a poor diet. However, poor dental health can affect anyone, regardless of career, social standing or financial status. This is shown to be the case in particular thanks to a study from 2018 performed by the UCL Eastman Dental Institute Research team, where 352 Olympic and professional athletes were surveyed.



The survey was performed across 11 different sports such as cycling, rowing, football and rugby and they gave dental check-ups which assessed gum health, acid erosion and tooth decay. There was a substantial amount of oral disease discovered across the selection pool, with almost half (49.1%) suffering from gum inflammation and tooth decay. This shocking result proved that not only was poor oral health unrelated to social status but it also showed that even those we see as healthy role models can still suffer from oral health issues.


Unexpected Data

These athletes were questioned on their brushing habits and 94% said they brushed at least twice daily, with 44% saying that they regularly cleaned between teeth (flossing and interdental brushing). Despite these habits though and the obvious care and attention the majority showed toward their dental health, the underlying results were that almost half had active tooth decay and inflammation of the gums. So how can the healthiest people in society, such as athletes struggle with dental problems? The answer was down to their training.


Training Effects

It seems that it was during training where many of these athletes were doing the most harm to their teeth, with regular use of sports drinks, energy bars and gels which are commonly used by amateurs and professionals to help keep energy levels up, particularly in high-cardio sports and exercises. Training would have seen them burn the most calories and work harder for longer periods of time and so energy drinks in particular helped replace their lost salts and provide them with electrolytes. However, as we now know, the majority of these sports drinks are packed with sugar in order to help fuel after heavy exercise. Although this is beneficial to those pushing heavy cardio regimes, it still has a negative impact on teeth. And an especially big problem with these energy drinks is that they are marketed and targeting the general public, which we now see with many children drinking them before or at school and therefore resulting in 40 – 50 grams of sugar before they’ve eaten anything, per day.


Sugar Laden Energy

Energy bars and drinks are typically heavier with sugar but when a professional is training every day and using these regularly, even brushing twice a day won’t prevent acid erosion and eventual tooth decay. The fact is that no matter someone’s financial status, career or social standing, the biggest threat to oral health is without doubt sugar intake from food and drink. The issue at the moment and it is well publicised, is with the general public and it is an abundance of sugary foods (sweets, snacks and juices) which are consumed regularly.

The issue with trained professional and amateur athletes is that they are consuming just as much sugar as that unhealthier demographic, including the general public but even their healthier lifestyle and improved physical activity and training regimes can’t stop their dental health from equalling those on a poor diet. Sugary drinks and snacks are the common denominator between the two and it shows that poor oral health can affect anyone, when the diet becomes saturated with too much sugar.

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