Why the office cake is an emotional and political minefield

The last time I worked in an office, we had a special place for cake. It was in the middle of the room on a red bookshelf that was rarely empty. Not just cake, mind you — here was the repository of all things sweet and calorific, a daily diet of biscuits, home-made flapjacks, the odd birthday tin of Quality Street and a lemon drizzle or two . . .

Everything got eaten except, on one memorable occasion, some peculiarly glutinous specialities brought back by a colleague from a holiday in Myanmar.

It was like having an in-house bakery. Once we even did our own Bake Off — I came second with my chestnut cheesecake; I still have the oven glove I won.

Alas, I also have all of the fat clustered around my middle that I accumulated while working there.

When Food Standards Agency chair Professor Susan Jebb last week suggested that cake in the office was as bad for the health of office workers as passive smoking, widespread hilarity ensued.

Making healthy choices is harder when you’re working in an environment full of cake, she said, just as it was harder to avoid cigarette smoke in the pub before the smoking ban.

Professor Susan Jebb, chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, says bringing cake into work is as harmful to colleagues as secondhand smoking

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How ridiculous, we scoffed in response. Even Rishi Sunak told her to stop being so silly. ‘The Prime Minister believes that personal choice should be baked into our approach [to healthy lifestyles]’ said an official spokesman, drolly. It was added that carrot and red velvet cakes were Rishi’s favourites

But, leaving aside the wisdom of following health and safety advice from a man who failed to wear a seat belt, I am going to buck the trend and say that Ms Jebb has a point. For those of us who struggle with our weight — and I’m the poster girl here — cake in the office is no laughing matter.

For the 15 years I worked in that office, I was continually on a diet. I’d once been skinny — people used to say I looked half-starved even though I ate my own weight in mashed potato and Mars bars — but when I hit 40, my metabolism seemed suddenly to throw in the towel and the amount of cake I consumed really began to matter. Tragically, every calorie showed.

Over the past 25 years I’ve gone from a size 12 to a 20. I’ve done every weight-loss system possible — the Atkins, the Dukan, Weight-Watchers . . . even resorting to injecting a weight-loss prescription medicine called Saxenda into my thighs every day.

Yes, I’d lose weight — sometimes as much as 2 st— but it always came back with interest. I never succeeded in saying goodbye to the ever-increasing blubber.

Was it all due to office cake? No — but the constant temptation and sheer availability of confectionary certainly didn’t help my cause.

Indeed, very many of us could do without it. Almost three-quarters of people in the UK between the ages of 45 and 74 are overweight or obese (I count myself among the latter). Not only is it unhealthy to pad out one’s organs with rolls of fat, but the toll it takes on our health is a dead weight on a struggling NHS.

Taking cake culture out of the office isn’t going to solve this on its own, but keeping already plump fingers out of the tin has to be worth a try.

The truth is, as every woman who’s ever worked in an office knows, there is politics around cake, and I don’t mean of the Sunak variety. 

The professor says: 'If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day'

The professor says: ‘If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day’

As soon as someone whips out a Tupperware box, we are into complex emotional territory. Folk immediately gather round, as if for the unveiling a sacred object, to wonder over 3lb-worth of chocolate orange cake.

Amid cries of ‘did you make this — aren’t you clever?’, it is then passed round like a communion wafer, albeit a million times more calorific (Nigella has a lot to answer for).

‘Oooh, lovely,’ we all coo, while immediately totting up the pros and cons — personal and office-political — of either gorging on a big slice, or turning it down in a fashion that will inevitably make every other woman feel bad about herself and briefly hate us.

Worse, if you’re the fat one in the office, don’t fool yourself that you’re sidling up to that cake tin without being watched. And judged.

‘Looks like she’s eaten all the pies already — maybe she should give the lemon meringue a miss.’ They are thinking it.

Over all my years of office cake consumption, I’ve come to recognise three distinct types of person behind the lobbing of these emotional hand grenades. Well, let’s be honest, three types of woman.

The first and best-known is The Feeder. I have some sympathy with The Feeder. Almost from birth, women have it programmed into us to nurture others: I am woman, see me cater.

We nurse our children and cook meals that wouldn’t look out of place on The Waltons, even if they’re microwaved at the end of a busy day.

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A poll by YouGov, which asked more than 5,000 Brits what they think about brining unhealthy foods to the office, revealed that 77 per cent think it is either 'completely' or 'somewhat' acceptable. One in 10 (nine per cent) said it is 'somewhat unacceptable', while four per cent said it is 'completely unacceptable'. A tenth (11 per cent) said they didn't know

A poll by YouGov, which asked more than 5,000 Brits what they think about brining unhealthy foods to the office, revealed that 77 per cent think it is either ‘completely’ or ‘somewhat’ acceptable. One in 10 (nine per cent) said it is ‘somewhat unacceptable’, while four per cent said it is ‘completely unacceptable’. A tenth (11 per cent) said they didn’t know

Men do the show-off Ottolenghi stuff — women plan the family meals and feed the kids on a daily basis.

I myself have Feeder tendencies. As a young mother, I weaned the first of my four children on pureed organic carrots and cauliflower, and dutifully cooked freshly liquidised infant food for every meal. Did my daughter eat it? Of course not.

I still remember the clutch of desperation and failure I felt at every meal when her toddler lips remained glued shut.

One day I remember taking the miniature shepherd’s pie over to the high chair, seeing her face and then making a detour straight to the bin where I tipped it straight in, cutting out the middle man. Pudding, however, was always a winner. I well remember that warm custard curl of pleasure as every last drop was devoured.

It truly is one of life’s great satisfactions to see people eating something that you’ve prepared.

In some it becomes addictive. Food is love. The rejection of it is viscerally painful, but the acceptance a fabulous stroking of the ego.

It’s why teenagers are so brilliant at using it to annoy you. (My two daughters would scrape the elaborate sauce off a slaved-over meal, smother what was left in ketchup and then eat about a third of it.)

So wrinkling your nose up at the lovingly prepared Victoria sponge presented by your desk mate at work is layered with as much rejection as the jam and cream oozing from its middle. It’s hard to resist sharing it with her, even when you really don’t want to.

The other two types? The Pusher and The Dumper. They have a lot in common in that they rarely eat the stuff they have provided.

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Professor Jebb has also criticised the Government for delaying a junk food advertising ban amid increasing obesity in the UK

Professor Jebb has also criticised the Government for delaying a junk food advertising ban amid increasing obesity in the UK

The Pusher uses baking as a displacement activity. She draws vicarious pleasure from watching others consume the calories she can’t.

The worst culprits in my office were the slim beauties who looked as though they lived on lettuce and litres of Evian, but would rock up every few weeks with banana bread.

Oh God, I’d think as that delicious toffee aroma would waft across the room, and I’d silently wish she’d just chuck out her over-ripe fruit like a normal person.

What was worse was that one of the lissom pre-Raphaelite babes sat right next to the red shelf where cake was kept, and was witness to every morsel you ate.

The humiliation of going back for a second slice was hard to endure — but on the plus side (and size), it was very good cake. I could never resist lolloping over, all the while filled with self-loathing for giving in.

Another of The Pushers made everyone a fabulous birthday cake of their choice, but, of course, couldn’t eat it herself because she was gluten intolerant.

It came from a good, generous and caring place, and it was impossible to ask her not to do it. In fact, as time went on, office etiquette dictated that cake on a birthday was obligatory, often accompanied by fizz . . . because it’s not only eating that can be a workplace hazard — let us not forget the booze. I worked in the media industry, a particularly drink-friendly environment.

Not only did we have regular client events where alcohol flowed, but also ‘gin Thursdays’ when a gin & tonic appeared for every employee at 4pm.

There was TGIF wine; Aperol spritzes in the summer and wine o’clock just because we’d had a hard day. You may not want to get sloshed on empty calories with your office besties before you get on the Tube home, but not to partake made you feel like a stick in the mud, refusing to join in with the office camaraderie. Let’s face it — everyone seems sooo much nicer after a few drinks. Even Gordon in accounts.

However, the least forgivable of the cakeists has to be The Dumper. They’re usually the fitness freaks who haven’t eaten a carb since puberty and use the office as a garbage disposal for all the bad stuff that never passes their lips.

The Dumper’s moves come straight from the playbook of those who throw out leftover dinner party dessert the minute guests leave, so as not to eat it themselves. This is the only one of the three types who might be male.

MailOnline looked at 160 cakes available on the high street. The most calorific option was Sainsbury's Cookie Dough Chocolate Chip Madeira Cake (top left). Tesco's Finest Trillionaire Cake was also among the worst offenders (top middle)

MailOnline looked at 160 cakes available on the high street. The most calorific option was Sainsbury’s Cookie Dough Chocolate Chip Madeira Cake (top left). Tesco’s Finest Trillionaire Cake was also among the worst offenders (top middle)

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But where is your willpower, you are thinking as you read this? Or the twig-like Rishi Sunak certainly is. Just say no!

But for some — me! — eating sweet things is a form of addiction. Would you breezily tell the alcoholic you invite down the pub for a boozy leaving do to just say no? It’s easy to be smug when you can still fit into your 40-year-old wedding dress and don’t have a problem with food, but for those of us who do, the cult of cake is a genuine challenge.

And it really is everywhere. Quitting the office environment hasn’t made it easier to avoid. The pottery studio I go to celebrates birthdays with home-made brownies. It has a cookie jar that is proffered round the room like the offering plate in a church.

Choir practice comes with snacks; Stitch and Bitch takes place in the local cafe — no craft class is complete without Mr Kipling in attendance.

And don’t get me started on so-called protein bars at Pilates, which are just chocolate bars dressed up in yoga pants.

It’s as if middle-aged women can’t function without sugar, always accompanied — in the very act of reaching for a slice — by the words, ‘I mustn’t!’ Well, just bloody don’t then, say the disciplined and the slender. Oh, I wish.

We serial dieters know the only sure-fire way to lose weight is basically to stop eating. Exercise alone has limited potential. (It may tone, but it doesn’t sculpt your abs unless you abstain.) Starvation is about the only way to shift it.

The trouble is, I can’t stomach that for long.

We may be told to love our bodies, despite or because of our curves, and accused of body shaming if we mention the F-word, but for me there’s nothing much to adore about not quite fitting into restaurant chairs with arms.

For those women who are body positive and celebrate their size, I have nothing but respect and envy. There are many fabulous larger women who just radiate joy. I don’t. I’m a very happy person until I look in the mirror.

So let’s not mock the likes of Susan Jebb when she tells us to beware the pitfalls of the omnipresent cake. Let the workplace not push sugar like a corner crack dealer. Please bakers, Feeders, Pushers and Dumpers, desist.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk