Shout out to the Faculty of Dental Surgery at Britain’s Royal College of Surgeons for taking one for the team. At the start of the year they released this statement encouraging workplaces to “cut cake culture”. Which prompted opinion pieces such as this one: Royal College of Surgeons’ warning on ‘cake culture’ leaves sour taste. What a nice change it is to have another profession being smeared as food police. Dietitians welcome you to the club with open arms.
In all seriousness though, as a dietitian and a human who works in an office and who eats food (and even cake), I wholeheartedly support the statement by the Faculty of Dental Surgery. Sugary treats have become the standard in our culture. Many workplaces have cakes for birthdays, retirements, wedding showers, baby showers, holidays, promotions, pretty much any occasion we can come up with. Maybe these celebratory cakes wouldn’t be such a big deal if they weren’t just one piece of a larger ultra-processed excessive food environment. Unfortunately, they are and we can’t just look at a celebratory workplace cake in isolation. We also need to consider the fact that there are other “treats” in the workplace. Food at meetings, well-meaning coworkers bringing in homemade goodies, leftovers from meetings, candy bowls, vending machines, potlucks, rewards of pizza or meals out. These are just the landmines that people must navigate while at work. Outside of work there’s fast food outlets everywhere, there’s food for sale near the checkout in nearly every store (I’m looking at you Canadian Tire, HomeSense, Staples, Bed Bath & Beyond, et al), nearly every social interaction involves food. Workplace cakes are no longer the innocent celebratory treats that they were in the past.
The opinion piece is disdainful of the stance of the Faculty of Dental Surgery on workplace cakes. The author believes that energy would be better spent focusing on workplaces conditions such as that we’re never really “off” or packing people into cubicles like “battery hens”. Also worthy causes but not exactly within the purview of dentists. There’s also the logical fallacy of framing the argument as if one can care about workplace cakes or one can care about “real” problems in workplaces. This doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. I can be concerned about my workplace food environment and other workplace conditions at the same time. The author then goes on to raise additional workplace food environment issues. Certainly proper meal breaks, access to nutritious food, and a culture that values long workdays over productivity and work-life balance are all important concerns. Again, not so much from a dental perspective. However, they along with the “cake culture”, all play a role in our ability to make healthy choices.
Questioning the need to celebrate every occasion with cake is not an attack on women, as much as the author might like us to believe. What’s worse here: offending the fictional Margaret by limiting the number of occasions at which she can bring in cake, or failing to provide a supportive food environment for all staff? Anyhow, if the right approach is taken, there should be no offence caused.
Creating a positive food environment at work can be difficult. Food and emotion and reward are so closely intertwined in our society. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. With time, understanding, and diplomacy it is possible to make real positive change at work. No one should be acting as the food police, and no one should be acting as a food “pusher”. We all need to be more understanding of the fact that for many people a piece of cake is not a simple pleasure.
If you’d like to create a healthy food environment at your workplace, or are just curious about the idea, I highly recommend checking out the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professional’s Toolkit: Creating a Healthy Workplace Nutrition Environment. This toolkit can help you figure out where to start with creating a healthy nutrition environment at work, how to get buy-in, and provide you with many other resources.