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Mar 14, 201912:25 PM Live Well, Work Well

with Debra Lafler

Transform ‘cake culture’ with love and nutrition

(page 1 of 2)

Workplaces are notorious for having cake in break rooms. Maybe it’s doughnuts or cookies or candy, but the point is that dessert is everywhere at work. Ironically, worksite wellness efforts have skyrocketed in the last decade, encouraging nutrition, weight loss, prevention of chronic diseases, and so on. Still, we consistently come up against this “cake culture.”


As with any dilemma, we have a choice. We can ignore the issue, or we can get curious about it to figure out how we can make changes. Some may say, “Just ban desserts at work.” I don’t think that’s likely, nor possible or advisable. If we do something extreme like that, we become what I like to call “the wellness police,” and then nobody likes us. So, let’s consider other options.

My approach is two-fold. First, we have to figure out the benefits of “cake culture.” We need to ask ourselves, “Why do we do this?” With any behavior there are reasons why we do it — positive reasons; some may call them “payoffs.” Basically, we do a behavior for what we get from it.

Second, we have to consider these benefits when we decide on changes. There are tips for bringing healthy foods into the workplace, but if we don’t address the underlying motivation for the behavior, we won’t be able to change it.

So, first let’s talk about the benefits we are getting from our “cake culture,” and then let’s dive into some things we may be able to do to transform our workplaces.

The benefits of “cake culture”

Why does someone bring in doughnuts or pastries or candy? This can be a manager, a co-worker, or a vendor. They bring it in with a huge smile! Look what we brought! So, what’s the intention? It’s likely one or more — or all — of these reasons:

  • To give a gift;
  • To celebrate (maybe its someone’s birthday);
  • To say “job well done”;
  • To say “thank you;
  • To say “I value you”;
  • To be the fun one;
  • To be the “bad” one (in an exciting, rebellious way);
  • To bring pleasure;
  • To evoke good feelings;
  • To evoke smiles.


When we accept the gift of this food, and when we eat it together, it’s a way to:

  • Show acceptance and appreciation of the gift;
  • To say “thank you” to the person who brought it;
  • To be nice;
  • To fit in with others (do what others are doing);
  • To be a part of the group or culture (or create a social bond);
  • To connect with others in a shared moment;
  • To express whatever meaning is attached to the food (for example, if it’s a birthday, then you are expressing celebration).

In short, the easiest way to understand “cake culture” is to recognize that it is not about the cake. It’s about love and belonging. It’s about giving and receiving love (i.e., joy, pleasure, gratitude, celebration). And it’s about social connection and group cohesion.

Love and belonging

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, shared this concept through his “Hierarchy of Needs” model, where he explains that we have certain innate human needs that need to be provided before we can work on self-improvement. Love and belongingness is one of them.

Humans are social beings. Our survival depends on it. We have an innate urge to connect, bond, have friends and family, and to be a part of groups, which can be workplaces, churches, social groups, or cultures. We feel compelled to love and be loved, to be in relationship with others, to belong to a group or group(s), and to identify ourselves as such.

To show love and belongingness we often use food or drink, and do so as a ritual. All cultures do it. We bond over food. We bond while we are eating. Workplaces have created a ritual of bonding over cake/desserts. It is what we do as a culture.


Take away cake, take away love

I know this sounds extreme, but if we take away the cake/desserts, we are actually in essence taking away the ritual of showing love and belonging. The food is symbolic, carrying meaning and value. We can’t take symbols away without disrupting the social system that goes along with it.

An easier way to explain this is to think about birthday parties. What do we serve at birthday parties? Birthday cake! So, what if we said, “No more cake at birthday parties!” It feels wrong, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s not about the cake, it’s about what it symbolizes. It’s the same with our workplace foods.


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About This Blog

Debra Lafler is a Madison-based wellness consultant, coach, and speaker with over 20 years of experience in the field. She currently works as the employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, and as an adjunct instructor for the University of Wisconsin’s Health and Wellness Management program. She also is available privately to hire as a business consultant, personal coach, or motivational speaker. Debra has a doctorate degree in Divinity & Spiritual Studies from Emerson Theological Institute; a master’s degree in Health & Behavior Studies specializing in Health Education from Columbia University; a bachelor’s degree in Communication, with certificates in Wellness and Coaching from The University of Wisconsin—Parkside; and certificates in Worksite Wellness, Holistic Stress Management, Grief Support, and Yoga. She can be reached at or



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