Dentists have recently called for an end to the office ‘cake culture’ – not only for optimal oral health but also to combat the obesity culture. As an avid baker and cake-eating lover, I am here to defend the rights of the office workers to indulge in a slice of Victoria sponge or a biscuit or two*. A dietitian defending the right to eat cake?! Yes, you did hear me correctly. Allow me to elaborate.

*caveat: please note, conditions apply – read on!

Sugary foods and oral health:

It is well-established that foods and drinks high in readily available sugar (mainly sucrose) contribute to poor oral health. Bacteria in the mouth rapidly converts sugar to acid, which leads to a loss of calcium and phosphate from the enamel coating on teeth. The weakened enamel can then collapse to form a cavity. It is primarily the frequency of sugar consumption, i.e. snacking in between meals, that affects this. It’s worth mentioning that the ‘natural’ sugars in dried fruit and fruit juice can still damage teeth – whole fruit less so, as the presence of fibre acts as a sort of buffer. But you don’t have to cut these sorts of foods out completely, by any means. Even having your sweet treat with a meal, rather than in between meals, will help to mitigate the detrimental effects on enamel. And, of course brush regularly and all that jazz (this is somewhat outside my area of expertise…). More info can be found here.

Sugary foods and obesity:

We all know that, as a nation, we are getting fatter. However, what role do high-sugar foods play? Sugar is now being demonised as 1980s low-fat public health guidelines did little to help combat the obesity epidemic, but is this justified? A review on sugar and obesity published in 2013 concluded that, although increased intake of dietary sugars is associated with weight increase (go figure…), exchanging these dietary sugars for other carbohydrates with the same calories showed no change in body weight. Furthermore, trials in children that involved recommendations to reduce intake of sugar sweetened foods and beverages, lead to no overall change in body weight due to low participant compliance. A more recent study showed that the diets of obese people contained 12% more calories and 15% more fat, but only 5% more sugar compared to non-obese people: the main predictors of obesity were overall calories and fat consumption, rather than sugar consumption. The authors have stated that there is evidence of a ‘see-saw’ effect whereby, if people focus on reducing consumption of fat or sugar, they compensate by eating more of the other, therefore negating any beneficial effect on body weight.

This suggests that it would be more fruitful to target portion sizes across a range of food groups, rather than simply cutting out high-sugar foods. In all likelihood, a slice of cake would be replaced by a substitute that has just as many, if not more calories. Some alternative options contain more sugar than you think. Take a gander at my comparison of various snack options below, some of which are traditionally thought of as ‘healthier’ alternatives.

Food (and portion size)Calorie content Total sugar content
One slice homemade Victoria sponge with buttercream* (approx. 50g or 1/6 round cake)238kcal20g
One slice Jamaican ginger cake
(25.8g slice, or 1/9 shop-bought loaf cake)
93kcal9.7g
2 custard creams62kcal3.6g
A small handful of mixed nuts (30g)
197kcal1.4g
1 medium banana*81kcal18.1g
2 Ryvita with 2tbsp houmous (approx. 50g)*

295kcal2g
250ml (small cup) fruit smoothie*12kcal2.9g

*source of nutritional information: McCance and Widdowson’s composition of foods integrated dataset

Clearly, there are going to be less calories in a piece of fruit than in a slice of cake. But what about other snack options? It’s all very well us recommending appropriate portion sizes, but it is far too easy to go overboard on energy-dense snacks such as nuts or hummus, which could mean you take in the same amount of calories as a small slice of cake. Of course, you wouldn’t get the same range of vitamins/minerals/so-called ‘healthy’ fats, but in terms of calories, it makes little difference. What’s more, the ‘naughty’ options certainly aren’t void of any nutritional benefit. The term ‘empty’ calories is often thrown around; I may accept this for fizzy drinks and sweeties, but cake actually provides protein, B vitamins, calcium and iron. I’m not saying cake is a fantastically high source of these goodies, but it is a source nonetheless. Sweet treats can even contribute to your fruit and veg intake if you’re into those kind of bakes.

Let’s also not forget the other end of the spectrum. Not everybody is obese. In fact, a sizeable proportion of people actually need nutrition support – much of dietetics is dedicated to helping people boost their energy intake and not just when they’re in hospital. A ready supply of cakes and biscuit at the workplace may be beneficial to some (although higher protein options are often recommended first).

There is a slight caveat to snacking on cake and biscuits: refined carbohydrates do tend to cause an energy slump following the peak in blood glucose levels; also, the lack of fibre means that you won’t stay as full as if you went for a high-protein and/or high-fibre option. Why not aim for the best of both worlds and include a bit of wholemeal flour or dried fruit when you next bake a cake for the office? Or have one rice cake and hummus and then half your slice of cake as your teatime snack? High-fat or high-protein foods will mitigate the large and rapid rise in
blood glucose levels caused by easily digestible carbohydrates.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating going for a slice of cake or a biscuit or two every day mid-morning and at tea time, but such delicacies can form part of a h
ealthy balanced diet. To be honest, I would advocate cake-eating any day over the numerous fad diets that emerge left right and centre, especially following New Year. As long as you’ve got a vague idea of the nutritional content of what you’re eating, you can adjust elsewhere: if you had a large slab of ginger cake at work, don’t have a dessert for dinner that day, for example, or
ake a short walk at lunchtime to counteract a proportion of your energy intake. Admittedly, this does require a certain amount of nutritional knowledge that not everyone will have, but some things are just common sense. And, of course, extra care should be taken if you have a medical condition that requires you to regulate your carbohydrate intake, such as diabetes.

What I’m really trying to say is: enjoy what you eat and allow yourself to have a bit of what you fancy and, chances are, you’ll be alright! So you really can have your cake and eat it.

Natasha Schoeler PhD

Natasha is a postgraduate student at KCL. She completed her PhD on the genetics of response to the ketogenic diet and is keen to follow a career combining clinical paediatric dietetics and ketogenic diet research.

 

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.