Let them eat cake?

When it comes to foods that people hold dear to them, it doesn’t take much more than an imagined threat to strike a media storm. Which is why the recent comments made by Food Standards Agency chairwoman Prof Susan Jebb comparing the harm of having cake in the office to that of passive smoking could only be interpreted as a full-scale attack on cake. The fact that she made clear that her comments were made in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the FSA doesn’t seem to have carried any weight with the public. Neither did it matter that she was simply illustrating how an obesogenic environment directly influences our behaviour including her own. It’s no secret that the UK has a very high rate of obesity and overweight. But it’s too late. She has already been found guilty of the grievous crime of attempting to ban cake at work. It doesn’t matter that she never actually proposed a ban despite the false accusations being spread widely in the media. It’s already case closed. But should it be?

Because what Prof Jebb actually said was not only sound and thoroughly evidenced but it shouldn’t have even been that controversial. It’s widely accepted that the massive expansion and availability of cheap ultra-processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-deficient foods and drinks that surround us has simultaneously increased with the number of obesity and overweight public. It’s not just a coincidence but is a major factor and the health effects of living in an obesogenic environment should matter. More than one quarter of adults in England are already obese and almost another 40% are overweight. You only need to look at the number of overweight 4yr olds in any school’s Reception class to see how the burden of ill health is being passed from one generation to the next. Yet for the amount of outrage expressed by the majority of breakfast news presenters, daytime tele hosts and subscribers of Mumsnet by even questioning if we are making it harder to stay healthy you would think that our personal freedoms were at stake. And in a sense they are but not quite in the way you would expect.   

To start with, I think it is fair to say that everybody feels that they should have the autonomy to make decisions about themselves and their lives and that includes what they want to eat. And not many people would disagree with that. Therefore, the main argument of the imagined proposed ban on bringing cakes to the office is that it essentially takes away this right. Because why should anyone’s workplace dictate what they can and can’t eat? Workers aren’t school children who have to like it or lump their school dinners anymore. They should be treated like adults. So if they want to snack their way through an endless supply of Victoria sandwiches, as long as crumbs are kept off the desk and work is done then no one should have the right to stop them. In the same way, the cake-snacking lobby reasons that even though workers should have the absolute right to eat cake that doesn’t mean that eating it is mandatory. No one is going to sack you for dodging a Battenberg. They argue that as an adult you have the fundamental freedom of choice to simply not eat any. But this is where our autonomy gets slightly trickier.

There is little disagreement that though cake is very tasty it is not healthy and should be considered as a treat rather than as a staple food of our diet. In other words, it’s not something we should be aiming to be eating on daily basis if we want to eat a varied, nutritious diet, stay at a healthy weight and maintain good health. However, trying to eat a healthy diet is far more complicated than simply exercising your free will in isolation to avoid eating cakes. You may think as an adult you have autonomy and it’s down to you to decide whether you should eat cake or not but the reality is that just having it around in your environment makes it more difficult to eat healthily.

To start with, take a moment to look around at who you are sharing an office with. There is always someone you know who seems to subsist solely on a diet of wedges of cake and slabs of gooey brownies with no apparent ill-effects. They may even proudly claim to have an extra stomach for cake. Because their healthy appearance may be belying a growing risk of ill-health their cake-heavy diet seems unharmful and even normal. Then you have the enablers who well know that they should not be eating cake as their routine elevenses snack. But instead of stopping themselves and eating something healthier they will recruit others to join them for some cake in a ‘we’re all in this together’ moment. They can be very persuasive and as more people give in and cut themselves a slice it can become increasingly awkward to resist the peer pressure and try to decline. Some will take it personally if you turn down a piece of cake as if you are only doing it to cake-shame them. Even if you explain that you are just trying to eat healthily or cut down on sweets it can be taken as a slight on others.

Even if you don’t recognise any cake enthusiasts or enablers working in your office and don’t normally share tea breaks or meals with colleagues, the fact is that if you have cake hanging around it makes it harder to resist it. It is difficult not to notice when other people around you are eating cake and not helpful to be reminded every time you make a cuppa that it is waiting there, ready and available for you to slice. At the same time, everyone gets to a point in the day when they start to flag a bit and experience a bit of brain fog, tiredness and the beginnings of hunger. This can all work together to make a snack irresistible. If you don’t have a healthy snack like a piece of fruit on you or even the time to go out and find something then you are more susceptible to whatever’s at hand. And if there is cake practically at arm’s length away it takes the willpower of the highest strength to resist. Even Prof Jebb, the Chairwoman of the FSA with all of her knowledge and experience admits that ‘If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them’. We might as well acknowledge that we are no match against the supreme power of cake. Cake 1, Autonomy 0

But if that is true, what does this mean for offices? Should there be a widespread ban on cake to protect all workers health? And should the ban on cake extend to the ubiquitous office biscuit tin? After all, we all accept that there are rules and regulations to keep workers safe and to protect their physical and mental health. Should this extend to what they can eat on the premises and in particular, the food that is provided in office tea rooms and canteens? Or does this breach too far into workers individual rights?

It would be easy to think that the natural solution to this cake conundrum should be a compromise of some sort. Say keep the cake lobby happy by continuing to allow cake in the workplace but have fruit and other healthy options available for those who would rather not eat cake. However, I have my doubts that even the most attractive fruit bowl will be more popular than a lemon drizzle or chocolate sponge among those trying to eat a healthy diet. In my experience I believe that hard as you try, as long as you there is cake and biscuits available then people will eat them. Therefore, a healthy environment that encourages a healthy diet must only include healthy foods and drinks. But do workers want that?          

I largely agree with Prof Jebb’s points and I also question why we expect our schools to serve a healthy diet to our children but do not apply the same standards to ourselves and our workplaces. However I am not proposing an enforced ban on cake at work. Believe it or not, I enjoy eating and baking cakes and my family and friends will attest to this. But there is a time and a place for eating this treat. What I think would be more effective than a ban is a consultation within workplaces among all members of staff so that the question can be broached. It is much easier to effect change and have everyone on board if you have a shared understanding and agreement on an issue. Essentially, we should all be interested in working in an environment that looks after us and promotes our health and what we eat is a big part of it. But it is not the only part and there are other areas where our workplaces could do more to support our health such as giving discounts for using gyms, leisure classes and swimming pools.

Clearly, the recent outcry to the comments made by Prof Jebb means that there is no great appetite for an office ban on cake at the moment. However I hope it will have at least started a conversation in workplaces about the responsibilities we all have to ourselves and to others for looking after our health. We may not have the power as individuals to be able to change our overall environment and to stop the proliferation and expansion of cheap, nutrient-poor, ultra-processed food near our homes. But the more workplaces support us to exercise our autonomy for the better, the greater our health will be.

To help fuel the conversation, here is a great recipe for a healthy Banana raspberry nut loaf. It’s definitely not a cake but tastes as good as one.

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