Photo: Taking a Break at the Chocolate Cave from ShellyS Flickr Photostream

I was at the dentist a couple of weeks ago and he managed to surprise me. For more than a decade now these encounters have been pretty predictable. Moralising about sugar, followed by mild disapproval about the state of my teeth and gums, and more moralising about brushing. I enter and exit with a vague sense of guilt, which is unfortunately not mitigated by the resentment I feel about paying for the check up.

This time was different. I arrived with two children in tow, a 2 and a 5 year old, and they went first. They bumbled around the room while I was lowered on the ‘space rocket’ chair. But before the dentist got down to business a novel intro. ‘Have you been eating more snacks?’ he said cheerfully. ‘Lots of people like you do find themselves eating something sweet in the afternoon.’ What to make of this? Why this new permission to admit to a snack habit?

At the time I made sense of it in relation to the kids. It made me wonder if mothers of young children are allowed general licence to stop looking after themselves – or even expected to sacrifice their health along with sleep and the rest of it.

Afterwards though I wondered if the dentist was just acknowledging reality. Why invite the pretence that we don’t snack when the evidence all around us says that we do? We are surrounded by sugary drinks – pop, juice, smoothies and the rest. We can get coffees on every corner, loaded with additional calories, and supplemented by pastries, biscuits and cakes. Surely sugar is the norm now. Could we start a more grown up and honest conversation with the dentist by acknowledging it?

The prospect was enticing. And as Vogel and Mol describe, people working in public health may increasingly try to start these conversations from this more realistic perspective. But what is lost?

The worry I have is that by normalising ‘treats’ we are giving in to the marketing of numerous snacks that make them a way of rewarding ourselves for the stresses of daily life. Spending money and risking our health in bids to survive the pressures of the working week or life with small children, or both.

What we really need and want is time, the treat is just the excuse, but the marketing conflates the two, as in the well-known KitKat campaign ‘Have a break, have a KitKat.’ In a paper in Critical Public Health on the use of ‘fun’ in marketing foods (part of a recent and very welcome special issue on Big Food), Elliott points out that increasingly foods for adults are promoted as fun, “as a playful, edible ‘pause’ in a hectic world”. She suggests that this starts to distance food from the nutritional accounts which otherwise dominate, allowing them to maintain or even increase markets for snack foods despite a contemporary obsession with health and fitness. In effect then the break itself is commodified.

It’s one thing then to start more honest conversations about eating habits. Quite another to accept the ways in which sugar is sold to us as an alternative to real rest or even pleasure in work. Even without worrying about the health effects of sugar, could we instead work on reclaiming the pause?

A final observation… in interviewing people about heart health, Kate Weiner and I did find some people telling stories about reinstating a distinction between treats and taking time for yourself. Though some people would talk about treating themselves with butter on special occasions or at the weekend, others talked about being able to be more healthy at the weekend, because they had the time to cook properly and prepare fresh food, whereas in the week they might grab convenience food and snacks. The real problem for our health though might be the double whammy, where people carry on the tradition of treats at the weekend and use convenience foods and drinks to give themselves a much-needed break in a stressful weekday – since both may be quite acceptable. I’m not sure that being guilt-free is worth it if we lose a sense of the need to sometimes take a real break, both in the working week and at weekends.