home_cafe_gallery3With a birthday, engagement, wedding, promotion or a return from holiday being virtually a weekly occurrence across the country’s offices, is our traditional way of celebrating, with sweet treats, harming our health?

 

I visit many offices as part of my work as a freelance nutrition consultant and while many provide fruit bowls, virtually all of them have a ready supply of cakes, biscuits or sweets, often on several days of the week because there has been a reason for someone to bring them in.  When running health workshops, many employees tell me that while they know it’s bad for them, when unhealthy snacks are sitting next to the fruit bowl in the office, they find it almost impossible to make the healthy choice.

 

I’ve chatted with many HR teams and suggested having treats only on one day a week or less and keeping them away from the natural flow of movement in the office, so they are not in such a tempting position.  The feedback is usually “It’s up to the individual to make healthy choices.”  Individual choice is often used as a riposte to what’s seen as a ‘nannying’ attitude when it comes to public health.  However, this response really concerns me.  Here’s why I fear for employee health.

 

Resistance is futile

Some of us naturally have better will power than others.  Studies e.g. Hunot et al, 2016, are beginning to show that, given the obesogenic environment in which we live, full of cheap, abundantly available, highly palatable but not very healthy foods, some of us are better equipped to resist than others.  Those that struggle in the face of temptation may be able to stick to a relatively healthy diet at home by simply avoiding buying certain foods but in the workplace, this is sabotaged by the cake table.

 

Always have cake on hand for emergencies.  Like Wednesdays.

There is always a reason to celebrate.  It’s your birthday, so you bring in cakes.  Someone is getting married so they bring in treats.  You’ve finished a team project so you celebrate with chocolate.  The list goes on but clearly, this means that there is virtually a continuous supply of treats.  I’m not saying NEVER have treats in the office but having them available almost every day is not promoting balance.  You wouldn’t get a takeaway every day so why is it OK to have a piece of cake or biscuits that frequently?

 

Comfort eating culture

Why do we celebrate with unhealthy foods?  Food is inherently social and breaking bread (or cake) together is a great way to bond with your colleagues.  But rewarding effort or happy events with sweet treats links achievement with food and effectively tells us to eat when we are not hungry.  Again, some people are more susceptible to comfort eating than others but if you find yourself reaching for the ice cream when you’re feeling either fed up or on top of the moon, then you might be a comfort eater.

 

Given that the workplace is a stressful environment and given that evidence suggests that stress can increase the risk of eating in the absence of hunger (Rutters et al, 2009), having unhealthy yet palatable food readily available creates a perfect storm for many employees.

 

How can we combat this?  It needs a concerted effort from businesses AND employees.  We all have a responsibility to make our environment healthier.  Here are my top tips for a healthier food culture at work:

  1. Each team should agree how often to bring in treats that are going to be shared (what you have in your desk drawer is your own business!). Once a week seems like a good balance and you can agree to take it in turns.
  2. Agree within each team that holiday sweets aren’t necessary – why not go for a healthy lunch together and chat about your holiday instead (plus holiday sweets are usually horrible!)
  3. When there are treats available, avoid putting them either near the flow of traffic in the office or near to desks. The more accessible the food is, the more difficult it is to resist temptation.  Instead, put treats a bit more out of the way, either in the kitchen or further away from desks.
  4. Why not have a monthly celebration cake for everyone whose birthday is in that month? That way, each person still gets to feel special but the whole office doesn’t get subjected to an onslaught of fat and sugar every other day.
  5. Businesses should challenge their catering providers to offer healthier options in meetings rather than biscuits. It doesn’t have to simply be a fruit plate either – popcorn, veg sticks with dips or flavoured oatcakes are all healthier options.

 

You might think I’m being a big party pooper but quite honestly, too many people have told me that they’ve had enough of unhealthy snacks being around so much and leading them to temptation.  It’s no longer about leaving it up to the individual to resist or otherwise.  We ALL have a responsibility to make our environment healthier.

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