Employers told to 'cut the cake' to avoid wellbeing crisis

3 Jan 2017 By Georgi Gyton

Dentists highlight health effects of sweet treats in the office, and call for cultural change

A ‘culture of cake’ among British workplaces is having a significant impact on the nation’s obesity levels and the state of its oral health, according to an influential group of dentists that is urging businesses to challenge employees’ sugar-laden diets.

The Faculty of Dental Surgery (FDS) says the presence of sweet treats in offices could be affecting productivity. Its appeal to bosses is timed to coincide with a period when staff who have overindulged at Christmas may be considering health regimes – or, alternatively, may be sharing festive leftovers with colleagues.

"While these sweet treats might be well meaning, they are also contributing to the current obesity epidemic and poor oral health," said Professor Nigel Hunt, dean of the FDS. "We need a culture change in offices and other workplaces that encourage healthy eating and helps workers avoid caving in to sweet temptations such as cakes, sweets and biscuits."

It is not the first time the FDS has tried to highlight the extent of unhealthy eating at work. Speaking at the organisation’s annual dinner last summer, Professor Hunt said he was particularly concerned that the level of cakes, sweets and biscuits being consumed at work was contributing to tooth decay in adults.

“Managers want to reward staff for their efforts, colleagues want to celebrate special occasions and workers want to bring back a gift from their holidays. But for many people the workplace is now the primary site of their sugar intake and is contributing to the current obesity epidemic and poor oral health,” he said.

Charlotte Stirling-Reed, nutrition consultant at SR Nutrition, told People Management that office culture often encourages people to snack on the wrong types of food between meals. “Most of us consume a large proportion of our calories at work, so if you’re making the wrong choices and not getting the balance and nutrients your body needs you could be at risk of deficiencies or becoming unwell,” she said.

“We need food to give us energy and nutrients to help us fight fatigue, boost immune health and allow us to work to the best of our ability. The right diet can also help us have better levels of concentration and motivation to continue working our best after lunch.”

In August 2016, a study in Food, Culture & Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research chronicled the emergence of so-called ‘food altars’ – areas in the office where cakes for someone’s birthday or leftover food from meetings is placed. The research suggested pressurised workloads were a key driver of increasingly poor decisions about what employees eat at work, and said this was having a negative impact on productivity.

Stirling-Reed said employers could try and tackle an unhealthy eating culture in a number of ways – for example, by starting a food policy that restricts the amount of cakes, biscuits and less healthy food that is brought into the office; encouraging healthier snacks to be brought in and suggesting what these could be; adopting a monthly ‘bring and share’ lunch, which adds a social aspect to workplace food without the need for sweet treats; encouraging employees to set goals, such as going for a walk at lunchtime, avoiding the lift and reaching their five a day; or sticking to a combined once-a-month celebration of birthdays.

Jo Travers, registered dietician at The London Nutritionist, and author of The Low-Fad Diet, agrees that ‘cake culture’ is a serious problem in the workplace. “Dental health is an issue as it takes a while for the pH of the mouth to return to normal after eating sugary foods,” she said. Sugary foods can also cause a spike in blood sugar, which the body reacts to by releasing lots of insulin to bring levels back down, causing a crash, she added.

“A sugar crash can leave us feeling tired and hungry and reaching for another sugary snack to perk us up again. But the sugar that gets cleared out of the blood is also likely to get stored as fat around the middle rather than being converted into energy for use immediately,” said Travers. She recommends keeping snacks to savoury items and eating sweet treats after a meal.

Does your workplace have an unhealthy food culture? Send us your pictures and comments via Twitter @PeopleMgt

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