Every few months (or so it seems), another alarmist diet story hits the news. A vegan diet can result in more fractures! An extra glass of wine will kill you! A single sausage a week can cause cancer! And this week, we’re being warned that sharing birthday cakes in the office is as bad for our health as passive smoking in pubs was.
That’s right, cake is apparently now killing you just as fast as accidentally breathing in secondhand fumes from someone else’s unfiltered rollie.
Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Food Standards Agency, told the Times that being surrounded by that kind of junk food is stopping us from making our own healthy choices during the day: “We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time… [but] we undervalue the impact of the environment.”
“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. Now, OK, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.”
Imagine the scene: there you are, munching away on your chickpea curry and lightly salted popcorn when out pops your line manager with a Colin the Caterpillar and a bunch of plates. Whereas before you might have resigned yourself to the miserable, tasteless popcorn, you’re now eating one of the caterpillar’s feet and thinking about going back to see if anyone’s nabbed his white chocolate face yet.
So, yes, you’re probably more likely to eat cake when it’s there. But here’s my problem with the Prof’s hot take: cake doesn’t actually cause cancer. There’s no safe amount of smoking; you might not develop lung cancer but you definitely are damaging your health in some way by smoking any amount of tobacco.
Cake, on the other hand, isn’t a carcinogen. Flour, water, sugar, butter, cocoa – none of those ingredients are known cancer causers, stroke inducers or respiratory disease promoters. None of them, if eaten as part of a balanced diet, are bad for you. Even the woman who wrote I Quit Sugar has started eating sugar again.
According to the latest data from the NHS, 35% of all deaths from respiratory conditions can be attributed to smoking. That’s probably because tobacco smoke contains over 5,000 chemicals, including actual poisons like hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and ammonia.
Don’t get me wrong - obesity also kills. In fact, the British Heart Foundation claims that around 31,000 heart and circulatory deaths can be attributed to excess weight and obesity every year. But obesity, as a disease, is about more than eating cake – and that’s what diet culture gets so wrong.
When are we going to start being honest about the fact that obesity and excessive weight gain is as much a mental health issue as it is a socio-economic one? If the thousands living with obesity were sick simply because they really enjoyed sweet treats or worked in an office with a birthday every week, the obesity crisis would be a simple one to solve. Clearly, it’s more complex.
Banning smoking in pubs has had a real-world impact. A 2011 government review into the impact the smoking ban has had on the health of bar workers since 2007 found that self-reported respiratory symptoms decreased from 67% to 40% after just one year of working in a smoke-free zone. In the three years that I’ve been working from home or hybrid working, my level of cake consumption has remained around the same as when I worked five days a week in an office where birthday offerings were commonplace. It’s almost as if comparing the choice to eat cake and the need to breathe air at work doesn’t make sense.
After years of isolation, Teams meetings and celebrating birthdays virtually, many of us are enjoying being back in offices part-time. We like being with our colleagues IRL, clapping our wins and revelling in each other’s good news or big days. Cake, quite rightly, is front and centre of desk parties. Long may that continue.