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Office cake culture - public health issue or harmless social tradition?

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With a new year come new resolutions. Many of you may have announced to your colleagues and family, and others may have tentatively pondered, that “this will be the year I focus on my health”. Perhaps, then, a BBC News story won’t have gone unnoticed, highlighting the dangers to health of ‘office cake culture’.

I think this story speaks very much to all of us and, in the quest for better wellbeing in government departments (whether through improved work/life balance, working relationships, mindfulness or the occasional sponsored walk), I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the role of nutrition and how it impacts on our health.

Nutritional debates have certainly been pushing the headlines in the last year. The proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks is one of the responses to the growing concern for public health, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its advice on total recommended daily sugar intake to roughly 6 teaspoons per day.

Sugar has been called “the most dangerous drug”. More and more evidence is being published about it being not only the root cause of diabetes, but ‘metabolic syndrome’ being a precursor (regardless of obesity) to cancer and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Little wonder that some say it is “detrimental to employees' health” and they should make a New Year's resolution to "combat cake culture" in 2017.

Yet we still like to sweeten things up…

I get it. When you’re writing a submission with a tight deadline and may not have time to eat, it’s easy to put an extra sugar in your tea or grab a chocolate bar from the vending machine for that energy boost. I know - I’ve done it. And don’t forget mid-week cake, ‘back from travel’ treats and birthday doughnuts ‘in the usual place’.

A sponge cake inside a red circle cut by a diagonal red line

Another big debate that’s thrown nutritional guidance on its head is saturated fat – is it good, or is it bad? Well, here’s the deal. In recent months, experts have become more vocal and studies have been published disproving the negative effects of saturated fat found in animal products. The National Obesity Forum (NOF) and Public Health Collaboration released reports in May 2016 questioning the advice in the official Eatwell Guide.

If we are to believe all of it – butter, full-fat dairy, fatty meats, eggs and lard are all back on the menu.

So, what to take away from all this? Is the advice going to be disproven yet again?

Personally, I was challenged to think differently about what I put on my plate a while back. I changed my diet largely to include organic wholefoods including animal fats, meat, fish, eggs, colourful veg and fruit, and avoiding sweet drinks and processed foods. I’m not regimented in my approach, but I genuinely believe my overall well-being is better. I feeI more alert and clear-headed, and I don’t get that horrible mid-afternoon slump. Other stresses also seem perhaps a little less overwhelming.

The articles referring to office cake culture do have a point: it‘s extremely difficult to avoid the processed treats. But I do think we need to be more mindful of what is on offer in the office (not just during Ramadan), and of those who may suffer from or be susceptible to diabetes, of those who have difficulty resisting, or of simply not putting a spanner in the works of your colleague’s New Year’s resolution.

So, you ask, am I against ‘team cake’ on a Wednesday afternoon? I think it’s a great social tradition and should definitely continue to be a treat every once in a while, but perhaps the treats shouldn’t always be of the processed or sugary variety.

In any case, I’m not going to deny you the pleasure. Can you pass the strawberries and cream, please?

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  1. Comment by James M posted on

    It is true nutrition is poorly understood - it should be taught more in schools, for example. But many adults don't understand either, and our workplaces don't help. Eating a pack of crisps and a chocolate bar won't fill you up - yet this is what's on offer in the vending machines in our office.

    Quick tip: slow release carbs (wholegrains, brown bread etc) will keep you fuller for longer and help prevent unhealthy snacking. If you want to snack (which is fine - it keeps your blood sugar up and keeps you alert and awake), try something like oatcakes and hummous, or nuts/fruit.

    However all this is futile if you don't exercise. Regular exercise will actually enable you to eat stuff like cake and biscuits (in moderation!) without putting on weight. Walk or cycle to work occasionally. Or walk at lunchtimes etc.

    If you stay active enough, you can embrace cake culture 🙂

  2. Comment by M Hamilton posted on

    I think this article is rather disingenuous. The real, underlying issue is not the health and welfare of civil servants but the potential for sick days incurred by the unhealthy, sedentary working practices perpetuated by the culture of the civil service.

    The civil service does not promote the policy of leaving your desk every half an hour to prevent the potential for diabetic type 2 damage to the body. In fact, the culture of the civil service promotes desk-bound work at the expense of diabetes issues.

    We all know the NHS is struggling with the diabetes type 2 time bomb, it's high time the Civil Service did more to encourage its workers to leave their desks for breaks every half an hour.

  3. Comment by Matt posted on

    Liza, this is a really interesting contribution to the debate about health and work. The reaction to this post is interesting - I read the article a few days ago, but it appeared on my Twitter feed thanks to Guido Fawkes (

    At the end of 2015 I took a career break from my civil service job, I'd pretty much worked myself to a point of exhaustion over several years and was burnt out. By the time I left I was 101 kgs and a BMI of 36. I wasn't just obese, but "obese class 2".

    I don't blame "cake culture" entirely, the daily can(s) of full-fat coca-cola and the 4pm/6pm vending machine trips necessary to sustain my mental energy, my lack of time/energy (both physical and mental) outside work to exercise and the associated 9pm ready-meal or take-away, were also to blame.

    But "cake culture" is definitely a factor, and across a stressful division of 20+ people it meant there wasn't just team cake but always some sort of snack around. Not just because of a birthday or event but because we 'deserved' a treat, and certainly it provides a short-term alleviation from the worries and concerns of the day. And as our anonymous colleague points out peer pressure can be a problem.

    Within the first four months of my career break I'd shed 14 kilos, and by six months a further 5. Some 19 kilos lighter - and now "overweight" rather than obese, if you care about BMI. Why? Because I ate less sugar. Eating was/is one of my coping mechanisms for stress and depression. I was eating less overall but also eating better, less processed food, almost no snacking, and a lot less things with added/excessive sugar in them.

    The following six months I returned to work, and despite my efforts I've already put back on about half of what I lost. Yes, there is more I could do: saying no to myself more often, increasing my time for exercise. But having less temptation, having healthier options, and greater peer support wouldn't hurt too.

    I wouldn't ever want to stop "cake" from happening, it's an important social bonding experience. I'm no "health-freak" on a "crusade". "Cake time" can give us time to stop and connect with our colleagues outside of the normal flow - we might still have a work conversation, or we might talk about something else. It can have an important positive psychological impact.

    The key is finding the right balance - but I'm evidently still trying to find that myself.

  4. Comment by J E Baby posted on

    Yep the Civil Service runs on cake! Every now and again I bring in Jelly Babies for colleagues to munch on. I have been doing this since I started working over 30 years ago. I tell colleagues that they are there and then let them decide if they want to partake. Its all about choice - in the same way that when someone brings in treats I make a choice as to whether to partake.

    What really gets on my nerves is not the treats that are brought but rather the mess that's left behind when the treats have been consumed and the containers / packaging have been left behind.

  5. Comment by G Carter posted on

    Good grief - what a waste of space. Look, there are people with gluten problems, meat allergies, clothing sensitivities, swear-word intolerance, or who feel inferior to tall people. Look hard enough, anywhere, and you'll find a problem. But the Civil Service, of all organisations, must already have so much sensitivity training and, er, 'awareness' built into its day-to-day practice that this article adds nothing. I am sorry if some people are troubled by cake - but then, someone is always going to be troubled about something. A genuine personal issue, fair enough; but in a democracy, and you're in a minority, to wish that your colleagues should stop enjoying themselves to respect your sensitivity is a bit much. And it certainly doesn't need to be hammered - yet again - on the web, especially when the article contains nothing original: it simply admonishes the harmless majority to be 'sensitive' to yet another potential workplace grievance. You can see why people get career burn-out and take up manual jobs instead. 'Respect' and 'tolerance' go together, but they work both ways.

  6. Comment by James posted on

    It's about self-control. If you want to eat it, eat it. If not, don't. I agree with the comment about people being peer pressured to eat homemade snacks. Just stick with saying no, they'll get over it. And if not, maybe they need wellbeing help.

  7. Comment by Anon posted on

    What about peer pressure ?

    I have no problem with others bringing in and consuming cakes and other treats for birthdays, post-holiday, it being Wednesday etc. but as I don't have a sweet tooth when offered I thank the person who has made the effort - particularly if home-made - and politely decline. Unfortunately this is often met with "but X made it especially for the meeting", "Oh go, you can have a small piece", "I'll just leave one here for you to have later", "I'll come back later and see if you've changed your mind" and I'm often left with the feeling that I am being noted as someone who doesn't 'join in'.

    I agree with your reasons why we need to be mindful of what is on offer but also remember that some of us simply don't want any and find the cajoling uncomfortable.

  8. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Liza for your interesting blog.

    I have tried to adopt a sensible diet and in particular reduce my carb intake. But, on a few ocassions I relax and eat some french fries, roast potatoes, etc.

    As for my sugar intake. I have to say that I have found this quite a challenge and where possible have tried to limit myself to two chocolate treats a day!

  9. Comment by Gary posted on

    I do wish that people don't just say (for example) "those who may suffer from or be susceptible to diabetes". You must specify "type 1 diabetes" or "type 2 diabetes". They have completely different root causes and effects.

    • Replies to Gary>

      Comment by Grousie posted on

      ... but it's not really pertinent to the article, is it? Both have to manage their blood sugar levels (and, therefore, be mindful of regulating their cake intake).

      • Replies to Grousie>

        Comment by Paul posted on

        I have diabetes, I don't suffer it... I manage it, including the odd cake & biscuit!!!

  10. Comment by Julian Fogarty posted on

    And what about the effects on the body of a sedentary lifestyle, for example being sat at your desk for 8 -10 hours a day? Surely that has a much more detrimental effect on your physical and mental wellbeing rather than the odd sweet treat every now and again?

  11. Comment by Gemma posted on

    A nicely balanced article Lisa! I'm diabetic, and to add my tuppence' worth; you will never please everybody but it's just about balance; the thought that others may refrain from bringing in celebratory or social cake for fear of offending or isolating me is horrifying! I think about it less about the cake and more about the easy and cheap bonding opportunity and teams may lose more by insisting on extra mental effort to make them happen. That said, alternatives (grapes, raspberries, even cheese and crackers!) are easy; indeed, strawberries, given the amount of fibre and V&M in them, are some of the best fruit for diabetics; add in the cream to slow the absorption of the sugar further and you're basically talking my perfect dessert! Failing all these, an occasional opportunity to exercise self discipline by sitting in with a cup of tea and a no-thank-you to the cake is also no bad thing!