Why is office cake so important?

A few weeks ago, on Saturday 18th November 2017, the BBC news was talking about people losing Universal Credit payments over Christmas because they’re paid weekly, a Government consultation on a levy on plastic food packaging and the non-coup in Zimbabwe. They were all issues that affect lives and the future of the planet – ‘proper’ issues that we should all be concerned about. Nothing as frivolous as whether or not people eat cake at work.

But also on the news that day was a story about the NHS and lack of funding for social care. And in a way this, sadly, was not really news because stories about lack of funding, service cuts and impending collapse of our health and social care system occur so regularly. This is why I’m making a fuss about office cake. Because the UK’s office cake culture is part of a complex systemic behavioural problem that’s causing ill-health and pulling the NHS down.

We don’t have to veto office cake

BUT the good news is I think we can do something about this by rethinking workplace cake culture – and the other good news is that, no I’m not advocating banning office cake. We don’t need to because 95% of the 1000 people who took part in my recent research into office cake culture said they only wanted office cake once a week or less. 41% said once a month would be enough. So reducing office cake occasions to the levels that people seem to want would be a significant reduction.

Let me explain the link that I think exists between office cake culture and the NHS struggles.

As long as you are healthy, a slice of cake every now and again won’t hurt. Left to its own devices, your brilliant body will keep blood glucose steady and automatically adjust food intake and physical activity over the next few hours and days to keep body weight constant. The odd sugary, calorific splurge is deal-able with. But, be honest – most of us don’t have the odd splurge. As far as our bodies are concerned, the modern diet – full of processed foods and regular snacking – effectively means we splurge several times a day. And whatever the definition of ‘a splurge’, the fact that two thirds of the UK population are overweight or obese suggests we’re overdoing the splurging. With rising obesity comes increased type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses – including thirteen cancers according to the World Cancer Research Fund. The splurges are coming too often for bodies to automatically adjust and weight gain and other metabolic illnesses are the result.

You may be one of the remaining third of our population that manages to stay healthy with a healthy weight for your height, but you are in a fortunate minority that is shrinking year on year.

Over-indulgence is a normal human response in an environment that encourages us to over-indulge
The ingredients in and our associations with cake and sweet, processed foods make it very easy to over-indulge. Evidence backs this up: cake and sweet, baked goods are the primary contributors to snack food. Obviously, food manufacturers design their products to be delicious and moreish to encourage us to eat more of them. This is the perfectly legal market economy (but don’t forget that food and drink companies exist to make profits, not protect your health, whatever their marketing says). Cake and sweet things are particularly delicious and moreish although of course for some it’s crisps or samosas.

Even the sight, smell or thought of food we like makes us feel hungry and want to eat. Just think about your favourite foods or even just the packaging and marketing of your favourite foods… is your mouth watering yet? Our brains recognise something we’ve eaten before that tasted delicious and gave us pleasure and the pleasure and reward centres in our brains respond by making us want to recreate that pleasure by eating it again. So wanting to eat a cake or doughnut is a natural human response to delicious food that we just KNOW will hit the spot and give us a dopamine hit.

So when there’s a spread of cakes, tins of Quality Street or tubs of Haribo on display in the office, is it surprising that people eat it? We’re not off the hook when we walk down the high street or the through the train station where every other retail outlet is flaunting fabulous foodie treats. And when we get home TV programmes and adverts bombard us with reminders that something delicious is never far from our tingling taste buds. We’re persuaded that snacking and indulging in a quick energy hit is healthy and, worryingly, normal. Even more worryingly, I get regular reports of weekly cake rotas at schools and kids’ sports clubs – and this is nothing to do with fundraising; it’s just that it seems we cannot be more than 30 mins from our next cake fix.

Some respondents to the office cake research said cake and confectionery are available so often, they are not a treat any more. It’s no longer an indulgence to be anticipated and savoured. It’s something that happens several times a day, every day for so many people. And it’s making us increasingly overweight and unwell. And the dear NHS is struggling.

So. While politicians, food and drink companies, economists, dieticians, doctors and scientists debate the reasons and solutions for our obesity and NHS crises, it’s down to us to try to stop over eating and develop healthier lifestyles. How to lose weight was apparently the fourth most popular search in 2017 and the continuing growth of the health and weight loss sector indicates it’s what many people desperately want to achieve.

We can start by rethinking office cake.