Do you make a healthy cake?
(Trigger Warning, disordered eating)
Let me start by saying I am not in any way qualified to give health advice. Damn I wish a lot of people on Instagram would start their posts like that. They could go on to say, as I will, that while I have read extensively on the subject of food and health, I am by no means an expert. I am recently recovered from an eating disorder. Food and health have taken up an immeasurable amount of my time and energy. Do not take health advice from me. But read what I have to say on the subject, read your own books, consider your own lived experience and form your own opinion.
No food is intrinsically healthy or unhealthy. Unless you have an allergy and the impact on your health is urgent and immediate, what you eat today will have a minuscule overall impact on your health. What is health anyway? There are four main ‘pillars of health’ as the term has been coined. Sleep, stress, exercise and nutrition. So we are already just considering one out of the four of those things. Unless this sounds like a familiar story. (Trigger Warning: disordered eating behaviours)
Many times in my life I have been on a diet. Sometimes they are going really well, by which I mean I’ve stuck to whatever restrictions I’m applying to myself this year and have lost some or all of the weight I’m aiming to lose. There’s a party coming up. Now I’m not really one for parties at the best of times but because I’ve been restricting my food intake for a while I don’t have the energy to uphold my boundaries. So instead of saying, thanks for the invite but parties aren’t really my idea of fun, I’m going to the party. It’s a birthday party and in all likelihood there will be cake along with a bunch of other food not approved by my current restrictions. In the build up to the party I am anxious about this.
How am I going to stop myself eating all this delicious food that I’ve been depriving myself? Especially how am I going to say no when I’m offered a piece of cake? Or do I say yes but discreetly leave my plate somewhere? But what if someone sees me and thinks I’m rude? Maybe I’ll just eat it just this once. But what if I can’t stop once I’ve started? What if I just decide that on this day I can eat whatever I want? But what will happen to my diet? And round and round and round like this I go in my brain. On repeat, in the background, while I’m looking super fit and healthy and people are praising me for my weight loss and my discipline. Whereas I know that as soon as I fall off the diet wagon I'm going to be bingeing, over exercising to compensate and falling into a spiral of shame while I gain back all the weight I lost.
Maybe this story seems familiar to you. Maybe it doesn’t. But either way I think we can agree that this doesn’t sound healthy. It’s affecting my stress levels and my sleep at this point. Two of the ‘pillars’ that are so important to health. They are much more debilitating to my overall health at this point than a cake would ever be.
When someone asks me for a healthy cake my assumption is not that they are asking me ‘how does this cake support my overall well being?’ They are asking me ‘can you make it low fat or low calorie?’ And this is somehow fitting in with their idea of health. The answer to the second question is no, no I can’t. I make what I make. There’s an old cake maker's joke about someone calling up and asking for a dairy free, sugar free, gluten free, additive free cake. The cake maker says, sure I have one right here ready for immediate collection. The customer turns up to receive the polystyrene dummy cake.
However the answer to the first question is, well, that's really up to you. If you feel about the cake the way I used to feel about cake, then no cake I can make you will ever be healthy. But that is because of you, not because of the cake. What I can make you is something that will spark joy from the moment you see it. Something that you will anticipate with excitement. Something that will show someone you love how you have cared for them and thought about them and tried to delight them. And that’s before you’ve even tasted it.
And then once you eat it and you have the sensation of the crust of the buttercream melting in your mouth, giving way to the soft buttercream beneath and the delicious soft sponge, the pleasure centres of your brain will all light up. And you’ll share the cake with your friends and loved ones and you’ll laugh and joke about something that just happened and you’ll have a wonderful memory to share for a lifetime.
Food is not just nutrition. It is joy and memory and comfort and togetherness. It’s the chicken soup your Mum used to make, and the doorstep sandwiches Grandad made you after a roast dinner, and the unbeatable brownies your best friend from school still makes you when you are a bit down. When we make food just about health, or even worse just about our weight, we are missing out on so much.
So when you ask me if I make a healthy cake are you really asking me ‘will this cake contribute to the overall well being of myself and those I love?’ And the answer is damn right it will!
As an aside to this conversation, consider whether health is really the ultimate achievement in this world. There are plenty of people with chronic health conditions who, no matter which pillars they try and manage, will never have what many people would consider to be health. Ask yourself if these people are living a less wonderful, valuable and loved life than those people who are preaching that we all must strive for health. Realise that health is complex and nuanced and encompasses so much more than what we eat. Realise that it’s ableist to assume health as the gold standard for living well. Realise that the single largest factor that impacts peoples' health is poverty and go and fight that.
And eat the damn cake if you want it.