First published by The Pool on 3 January 2017
If you trotted into work today with half a Terry’s Chocolate Orange and a reindeer-shaped tin of shortbread, and dumped it on the “help yourself table” to be decimated by your colleagues – well, have I got a sobering wake-up call for you.
This morning, the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons released a statement warning that sweets, cakes and biscuits in offices are contributing to the obesity epidemic and to poor oral health. This isn’t news, really – we all know we shouldn’t be dipping into the Hobnobs several times a day. Nevertheless, it’s a classic first-week-of-January story, along with the dozens of press releases I will undoubtedly receive about boot camps and “spending detoxes” – because this is the time of year when what we really want is for someone to scold us about how indulgent we’ve been, and motivate us to pull our socks up for 2017.
The advice from the Royal College of Surgeons is intuitive and sensible – keep the sweets for immediately after lunch, rather than throughout the day; do one birthday-cake session on a Friday, rather than three during the week; put the biscuits somewhere out of eye line, so they’re less tempting – but the unavoidable problem is that office life can be dreary. It involves long hours of sitting at a desk and staring at a screen, and it often requires a superhuman effort to pay attention to meetings and tasks that you wish weren’t part of your job. A custard cream can’t fix all that, but it’s very efficient at temporarily cheering you up.
Outside of sugar, what is there to offer a ray of light in an otherwise gloomy work day? There’s flirting with a colleague – fun, but usually ill-advised (and not really an option if you’re a straight woman working in women’s magazines). There are cigarette breaks, which are just as bad for you as sugar, and much more expensive. But mainly, in this country, we rely on good old dependable tea – the crutch of our nation. When I was an office worker, on the really bad days I could spend about 30 per cent of my time standing in the kitchen, sighing heavily while waiting for the kettle to boil. And yet the joy of caffeine can only stretch so far.
Bringing in cake, of course, is also the standard way for a manager to show appreciation to staff – something that the National Obesity Forum’s Tam Fry is unhappy about, according to The Telegraph today: “Such food is neither a treat nor a reward. You may not know who in the office is secretly dieting in which case they won’t appreciate your gesture: if you do know, you’re plainly malicious. If you want to give them anything, give them a smile, a hug or both!” Though well-intentioned, this advice seems misguided; a smile is so easy to deliver that it’s insulting to call it a treat, and an unsolicited hug from the wrong manager may leave you more nauseous than a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
These days, I mostly work from home, but occasionally I do shifts on magazines and I’ve often been the colleague who comes back from lunch with a packet of Jaffa Cakes. I am always delighted to hear the opening strains of “Happy Birthday” sung by Carol from accounts, as she wobbles into the office with a Colin the Caterpillar cake aflame. I know it’s bad for me; I know that I’m getting flabby and that my skin, first thing in the morning, is as open-pored, greasy and pale as a slice of lemon drizzle. I know that sugar is currently considered to be the worst thing in our diets and that, as an outwardly slim person, I probably have fat gathering around my organs. We should all move the junk food to the least convenient corner of the office and keep the cake for Fridays – I won’t argue with that. But don’t take away our sugar altogether; in the grey monotony of office life, we need all the sweetness we can get.