Office Cake Culture Is Destroying Your Health

SUMMARY POINTS

> Cakes are loaded with tons of sugar
> “Added” sugar from High Fructose Corn Syrup is unhealthy
> Office cake culture can mess up your health
> Break the office cake cycle with healthier options 

♪♪♪ “Haaaappy biiiiirthday deeeear Kaaaathy...

...Haaaappy biiiirthday toooo yoooou.” ♪♪♪

The crowd breaks out in applause, Kathy blows out the candles, says a few words and the cake cutting begins as a few late stragglers scramble into the room.

The heavily frosted slices of the moist yellow cake are distributed to everybody in the room. And like everyone else, you get your little slice of heaven on a small paper plate along with a plastic fork and mini napkin.

Standing alongside your co-workers, you carve off a small portion and take your first bite - mmm, just what you needed for an afternoon sweet treat.

It’s the standard yellow cake covered with creamy white frosting from the supermarket - moist and delicious every time.

This is the fourth cake this month, making it a weekly event at the office.

Between birthday parties, retirements, work anniversaries, etc., there are at least two to three cake parties at work each month. Some parts of the year, you can expect to have two cake parties in a week.

Along with the soda, there’s enough sugar being consumed to keep everyone buzzed for the next hour before the crash comes.

Then when it happens, most return to the break room to grab a cup of coffee to get back on track and maybe even another slice of cake.

Most of the time, you’re good about having just one slice and resist the temptation of having more, but sometimes, you just can’t stop yourself when you walk by the leftovers and sneak out another small sliver.

We fall into the same trap every so often too.

A lot of times, we see these cake celebrations as a great reason to step away from our desk for a short mental break from all the work stress we go through.

Taking breaks throughout the workday is a very good thing and in fact, it helps to maintain and improve your productivity and focus. We’re huge proponents of this.

What’s not so good is the cake part of these breaks.

The Origins Of The Office Cake 

(Credit: Flickr.com Commons)

Baking cakes goes all the way back to ancient Egyptian times and carried over into ancient Greek and Roman eras.

Back then, the cakes weren’t really cakes like we know it. They were more like slightly sweetened bread made from flour mixed with eggs, milk, nuts, honey and sometimes other grains.

So, cakes have been around for centuries in one form or another. Baking and eating cakes continue today throughout the world across many cultures.

However, nobody really knows when this whole office cake celebrations thing began. There was no milestone moment of the first cake brought into an office like Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon.

But, we do have a general idea of when office cakes came into vogue in the US. So, we can roughly estimate when cakes starting appearing in corporate office settings. We’re gonna work a bit of our social archeological history skills here.

Like we mentioned before, making cakes from scratch has been around since ancient times. It wasn’t until the Depression years that a company created a dry formula for cake mix and put it into a box.

At that point, if you had the means, baking a cake was just a matter of adding a few readily available ingredients, mixing it all up and baking it in an oven. Boom. Done.

But this brand new cake-in-a-box concept didn’t really take off. It was more of a food item for the wealthy. After all, it was the great depression and most people didn’t have extra ingredients laying around and not much to celebrate about. 

(Credit: Flickr.com Commons)

Then, we got roped into this huge fight called WWII and all sorts of crazy shit started to go down.

Citizens rallied to collect, gather and send all sorts of valuable commodities to support the war effort. So, all those baking sheets, cake and pie pans etc sitting in the kitchen...yeah, they got melted down and turned into tanks, armor, planes - all sorts of stuff.

After the world was done battling it out with itself, global economic recovery and expansion began.

During the post WWII economic boom, sometime in the late 1940’s, giant food companies like General Mills, took the cake-in-a-box idea and improved upon it through better marketing and packaging.

General Mills and other companies heavily promoted the concept to stay-at-home housewives as a modern Jetson’s like solution to baking cakes.

Since the hardest part of getting the core dry ingredients was already taken care of by the premix, there wasn’t much else to do after mixing in all the wet ingredients like milk and eggs and popping it in the oven.

The breakthrough was the introduction of frosting and marketing it as a complimentary add-on (quite literally) to the cake - a perfect pairing.

At around that same time, all sorts of consumer-grade cake decorating tools were introduced to make the process easier and more fanciful.

Now, all the housewives could add their personal touch and creativity to the otherwise boring and plain looking cake.

We believe that this was the start of the “at-home” cake decorating era and most likely the approximate time when cakes started appearing at the office with husbands bringing home-baked goodies to work to share.

So, we’re guesstimating that sometime in the late 1940’s is when the whole cake at work thing really started to appear.

Fast-forward to today and those big cakes that are brought into the office are from mass production baking facilities, not from somebody’s home oven.

The final icing script is the only remaining creative part and that’s done by the bakery person behind the supermarket counter.

And since there’s no such thing as auto-correct or spell-check for cake writers, you’ve gotta keep a diligent eye on how they’re writing things out.

Otherwise, you might end up with cakes like these.

(Credit: Cakewrecks.com)

(Credit: Cakewrecks.com)

(Credit: Cakewrecks.com)

What started out as normal birthday celebrations has now expanded to all sorts of other work-related events or milestones:
- Retirements
- Work anniversaries
- Goodbyes
- New hires
- Product launches
- Sales achievements
- New baby
- Christmas & other holidays
- Halloween

The list goes on.

The office cake has grown into the default go-to mini work party to recognize, award and celebrate all sorts of events at work. Some of them are acceptable and normal but there are some that are just plain stupid.

We’re not gonna get into that subject, but rather, the hidden danger of office cake culture.

The Hidden Danger Of Office Cake Culture

(Credit: Sarah R via Flickr.com)

You’ve got a bunch of meeting invites sitting in your inbox. Which one catches your eye?

The one about Mark’s project status review? Nope.

The update on last quarter’s performance? Negative.

The conference call with marketing? Nah.

The one for Judy’s birthday? Bingo!

You go ahead and gleefully accept this meeting invitation before all others.

We eagerly accept these mid-afternoon “get togethers” as a valid reason to escape the digital drudgery of work and to wish a happy birthday, retirement, work anniversary etc. to a fellow coworker - some of whom, we barely even know, but most of us still go anyway.

It’s a bright spot and a little mental life buoy in our otherwise stressed out workday.

As you join the small herd of cubicle dwellers and congregate in the lunch/break room, part of you is enjoying this break and another part of you is still stressing out about that presentation and report to finish this week.

But in just a few minutes, all your stresses will temporarily disappear as you snack on a slice of chocolate frosted sponge cake.

You carve a small bite of the slice with your fork and wrap your mouth around it.

The sweet satisfaction triggers waves of euphoria and feel good hormones, also known as dopamine, from your brain.

What’s essentially happening here is that we’re living an on-going real-life psychological experiment at work where a trigger (invitation for cake) ultimately leads to a conditioned response (feel good hormones released).

Even just accepting the invite and resulting anticipation of cake is enough to trigger the release of these hormones.

This is known as classical conditioning or Pavlovian Theory.

The process is dead reliable:
- See meeting invite
- Accept invite
- Attend event
- Eat cake
- Feel good

It’s become an inescapable cycle for many of us struggling with our health and work stress.

For some of us having a really hard time with weight control, food is really like a drug. Fundamentally, it’s no different. It’s a stimulant that leads to an addictive release of dopamine.

And with cakes ladened with sugary icing, the dopamine hits keep us going back for more - we become addicted.

These cake-obsessed work environments are only making things worse for us.

The frequent and predictable event trigger-response of eating sugar rich foods is the major hidden health danger of office cake cultures.

Why Cakes Are Unhealthy

For several decades now, the overall message for healthy eating is to avoid foods high in saturated fat.

Overall, the public has gotten the message and people have been adopting low-fat diets for some time now to varying degrees. And, the demand is reflected in the wide supply of food options touting low fat content.

However, sugar and it’s variants like fructose, sucrose, glucose, whatever-ose haven’t gotten the same level of negative attention like fat has.

It’s only recently in the past few years that sugar has started to get the attention of health researchers. There have been growing studies and research into the effects of sugar and its impact to our health.

Some studies, like this one from the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, are showing that high sugar consumption is a contributing factor in the obesity epidemic, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and various other health ailments.

The University of California also conducts research on sugar consumption and provides their high-level overview of how sugar impacts our bodies.

VIDEO: What Does Sugar Actually Do To Your Body?
YOUTUBE: Fig. 1 by University of California
LENGTH: 4:02

Summary points:
> Processed sugars are harmful to our bodies
> Our livers process sugars into fat and store it in our bodies
> Excess sugar consumption creates a vicious cycle of health issues

Natural sugar itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing when consumed in moderate amounts.

Natural sugar or fructose can be found in fruit, honey and even in some roots and vegetables. In these instances, natural sugars aren’t as harmful to your health because it’s tied with other nutrients, carbohydrates, fibers, water etc.

What’s bad for you is the processed or “added” sugars from refined fructose. Refined fructose is processed from sugar cane, sugar beets or the most common, corn.

You’ve probably seen “High Fructose Corn Syrup” or HFCS in many sweetened food ingredients. It’s a super concentrated form of fructose in syrup form.

A lot of food companies use HFCS in food products and especially in sodas.

Why?

Because it’s a really cheap, highly concentrated sweetener that has a long shelf life. It’s a perfect ingredient for sweetening processed foods and drinks at really high volumes.

And guess what’s a major ingredient in frosting, icing and cake mixes?

Yup...sugar (sucrose) and/or refined fructose like HFCS. Take a look at the cake label on the box next time. You’ll see.

Now, we’re not health scientists or medical doctors. But, it’s pretty safe to say that eating or drinking anything in excess amounts is not good for you. Plain and simple.

While eating a slice of cake for a special occasion every now and then isn’t going to do you any harm, but eating it every week can mess you up.

According to the American Heart Association, the recommended maximum of “added” sugars that you can eat in a day is:

- Men: 150 calories per day (38 grams)
- Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams)

The average person today now consumes about twice that amount at around 77 grams of sugar daily or about 19 full teaspoons of table sugar. Imagine just eating 19 spoonfuls of sugar - kinda gross, right?

But you have to realize that those 77 grams are from all the stuff you eat and drink throughout the day. And, a lot of the time, you don’t even realize it and it’s easy to blow past the maximum recommended amount.

To put it in perspective, just a single can of soda is enough to meet the recommended daily maximum of added sugar.

Any “added” sugar beyond the recommended amounts just gets turned into fat by your liver and then gets distributed to fat stores all around your body.

So, about that slice of cake? Yeah, it’s right up there with the can of soda.

You will experience a short temporary rush of feel-good sensations of eating cake but like many sweet sugary snacks, you’ll soon bottom-out and crash.

How To Cut Back On Cake At Work

​It’s very rare that somebody gets left without a slice of office birthday cake, unless you’re Milton. 😉 However, most times, everybody gets some cake - even second helpings too.

We all know that cake parties at work will happen. It’s become so deeply ingrained within our society that it’s unavoidable.

We also know that it’s not realistic to cut out cake outright. It’s neither practical nor realistic.

However, there are ways and a few ideas that we’d like to share with you to dial it back a little bit to start and then, slowly make more progress to really cut back on it.

1. Go For A Sliver Not A Slice

Typically, there’s a designated cake cutter that’s taking the lead in cutting out pieces for everyone in the room.

Instead of just taking whatever slices are being distributed, speak up and make a request for a smaller portion.

Rather than the normal slice of cake, ask for a thinner slice or sliver. You’ll still get all the enjoyment and flavor with less sugar intake. 

2. Split-n-Share A Portion

If the lead cake cutter is just maniacally chopping up portions and rapid firing out all the cake with no opportunity for custom requests, then you can just buddy up.

Find a fellow coworker who’s open to splitting and share a portion. The both of you can benefit from reducing your sugar intake by half and still get all the yumminess.

3. Eat Half & Dump The Rest

If there isn’t a coworker around to split/share a piece of cake, just smile and accept the slice of cake.

Savor each little sweet morsel slowly to really get the most out of each bite. After eating about half or less, throw the rest out into the trash as discreetly as you can.

4. Don’t Eat The Frosting

A lot of these mass produced cakes have thick layers of frosting, sometimes even multiple layers for color variety.

A great way to really cut back on the sugar is to avoid eating the frosting because that’s the biggest contributor. It’s pretty much 100% sugar.

So, selectively fork out the middle cake portion and just eat that instead. There’s sugar in the cake too, but it isn’t nearly as bad as the frosting.

5. Just Say No Thanks

Remember the anti-drug tagline from the 90’s “Just Say No”?

Well, you can do the same here. After all, the sugar infused cake is really kinda like a drug.

The key strategy here is to tuck in behind the crowd and decline any pieces of cake that come your way.

If you must take a piece, then do so and hold onto to it for a few minutes for “just for looks” and then, dump it when nobody’s looking.

6. Bring Your Own Treat

One really good way to deflect cake offers is to bring your own healthy munchies to the get together.

When you’ve already got something in both of your hands, it’s far easier to decline cake offers. Your hands are full! You’re there to be part of the fun but not get sugared up.

Bring some low-sugar yogurt (plain, flavored, Greek, etc) and maybe even some healthy toppings like granola, dried cranberries, raisins, almonds bits, etc.

For more ideas on healthy snacks, check out this article and use a few of them at the next office celebration.

7. Stay Busy & Skip The Event

If the celebration is for a coworker that you barely know or don’t know at all or perhaps if it’s for a project that you have nothing to do with, then just don’t go.

Alternatively, you could “tentatively accept” the meeting invite and then tactfully, double book yourself for some self-development training at the same time as the cake session.

Or, keep your head down and focus on completing your top priorities for the day.

Then, if anyone comes by your desk to grab you for the event, they’ll see that you’re in the middle of a doing something and will hopefully leave you alone.

8. Disappear & Go M.I.A.

If you’ve got some real persistent colleagues at work that won’t give up until you give in and join the cake event, then try this approach.

When the session is coming up, let’s say in about 15 minutes or so, disappear and go for a stress-relieving walk outside.

When you’re “Missing In Action” or MIA and not at your desk, people can’t drag you to the event because you’re nowhere to be found.

And, instead of getting amp’ed up on sugar highs, you’re out getting some fresh air, a bit of exercise and a healthy dose of stress relief.

Set An Example For The Better

While you may be able to cut back on cake or duck out on someone else’s event, there’s no avoiding your own birthday celebration.

It’s gonna happen - and it’s nice to get birthday wishes at work.

If you’re really looking to get a bit healthier and reduce your sugar intake, you can set the example on your birthday.

It’s far easier to make the change for your event over trying to change the office tradition for all. You can be the spark for change.

So, instead of the run-of-the-mill standard sheet cake from the supermarket, why not ask the party coordinator to get some healthy stuff instead?

Try one or more of these options:
- Giant fresh fruit platters
- Big tubs of plain yogurt with various healthy toppings
- Veggie platter with hummus/avocado dip
- Specialty coffee/tea with natural sugars and spices
- Bowls of dried fruits and nuts (make your own trail mix)

You may need to get one cupcake or even better, one whole grain muffin to symbolically act as your “birthday cake” for the singing and candle blowing ceremony.

Once you get the ball rolling on this idea, chances are good that other coworkers will follow your lead.

Party Smarter & Improve Your Health

We know that these cake celebrations are a real sweet savior to your otherwise, downtrodden day of corporate torture.

It’s a great way to show support for a fellow coworker and it also provides a nice little break in your afternoon.

So when the mid-afternoon meeting invite alarm goes off to join the cake party, follow the herd to the fun and try out one of the ideas above to reduce your sugar consumption.

If you are disciplined enough to not eat any cake, good for you. If you can’t, then just have a little to satisfy your cravings. Just don’t go overboard and have cake at each and every instance.

As you get better at controlling your cake intake, you’ll soon find that your sugar cravings will start to weaken and it’ll be a little bit easier to keep your health on track.

So, keep your eye out for those party invites and join in and have some fun to break up your afternoon.

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]