Eee, but January is grim, isn’t it. Here we are, day 20, and it feels like it will go on for ever: a never-ending expanse of gloomy weather and dark evenings and heavy coats. The focus on self-improvement that seems to have intensified in recent years hasn’t helped: Christmas decorations hadn’t even come down this year when social media was flooded with ads featuring alcohol-free spirits and carb-free meal plans and other ideas aimed at draining away whatever little bits of joy we had planned to get ourselves through this, the dreariest part of the year.
Now we have been told that office cake – one of the few things that can be relied upon to entice many into the office on a cold January morning – should be banished, and that those who provide it are as bad as those who subject their friends to passive smoke. Professor Susan Jebb, chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, told a meeting of the Times Health Commission: “If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, OK, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.”
Her point, clearly, is that the food we eat is a product of the environment we are in. If there is cake in the office, most of us will help ourselves to a slice – an action almost as passive as inhaling the air in a smoky environment.
It’s a fair point, particularly considering the most recent NHS figures indicate that 26 per cent of adults in the UK are obsese – almost as high as the number has ever been – and that most are overweight. And clearly, stricter tobacco laws helped to reduce the number of smokers significantly; the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who smoke has declined from almost 26 per cent in 2011, four years after the smoking ban was introduced, to just 16 per cent now. Clearly, tighter regulation works, but the government continues to umm and ahh about banning advertising and buy-one-get-one-free deals on junk foods.
The timing of Jebb’s point, though, leaves much to be desired. January is tough enough already without feeling shame for small indulgences. Office cake is such a pleasure that some workplaces have actively promoted it in an attempt to entice employees back to their desks. The post-pandemic return of the Financial Times’s cake trolley was celebrated by the newspaper’s journalists; the trolley is so beloved it has its own Twitter account.
Perhaps previous generations had it right. They recognised that you can’t just go from the bacchanalian joys of Christmas to the misery of “New Year, New You” season without a buffer period, so they spent January hunkering down and Just Getting Through It, and waited until the days were a little longer, and spring was looking a little more certain in February, to begin the serious business of self-improvement – and called it Lent.
[See also: Will the Sunday Times turn on “wokery”?]