Health minister: eating at your desk is disgusting

Anna Soubry

Anna Soubry, the Conservative minister for public health, hasn't finished berating the British public for their eating habits. Fresh from lambasting poor people for eating too many chips in front of the TV yesterday, she is now laying into those who eat at their desks.

So what has she said, and should it prompt us to change the way we work?


The Telegraph, which first revealed Soubry's comments about overweight, poor people, has reported that she also has it in for office workers who eat at their desk, saying: "'It's disgusting eating over a keyboard."

She said that workers in her constituency office were encouraged to go out for a proper lunch break. She added: "Today, people don't get paid for their lunch. It's mad and it's wrong." She said that taking a break was vital to being productive.

So is she right?

There are a number of very good reasons why we shouldn't be eating at our desks. The first is hygiene: researchers at Which? Computing swabbed 33 keyboards and a toilet seat in their own offices. They found that four keyboards were filthy enough to make people ill, while one of them was five times dirtier than the toilet seat - with 150 times the acceptable limit of bacteria.

Then there's the question of having a break to improve productivity. The experts agree that time out helps clear and focus your mind, while a survey from Office Depot found that 10% of people have damaged work with spillages at lunch time - a real destroyer of productivity.

There are also the long-term health issues of eating too much because we are not focused on what we eat, and not getting enough exercise by getting up and walking around.

Soubry has a point. The trouble is that yet again she is making sweeping generalisations, which ignore the basic realities of life for most people.


According to, 62% of office workers eat lunch at their desk. This may be because they don't want to take a break. It may be because there's nowhere else warm and dry, that doesn't involve going to an expensive cafe. It could be because they are not interested in talking to their colleagues and they work on a business park ten miles from the nearest source of life.

Branding people disgusting because of the choices they make isn't helpful.

Eating in the office doesn't have to be disgusting and unhealthy. It can be a cheap and healthy salad, brought from home and eaten well away from your computer, on a part of the desk you clean up afterwards. You can take a break while you eat and talk to co-workers or just stare into space and empty your mind.

The trouble isn't that we eat at our desks - it's how we do it that's not healthy.

Weird comments

However, it's probably safe to say that Soubry doesn't worry too much about upsetting the odd office worker with her comments. In the interview she also said that Britain was 'weird'. because we obsess about cookery programmes, but we don't cook any more.

Presumably the idea of winding down in front of a watchable TV presenter who just happens to be cooking is a wild and crazy notion for Soubry. Presumably we're also utterly bonkers for watching wildlife programmes without immediately packing up the car and heading for the Amazon.

She also had more to say on the subject of parenting, and how sad it is that children start primary school unable to use a knife and fork because they eat with their fingers in front of the TV at home. She said: "I know it sounds old fashioned but it's all about the pleasures of food and some would say discipline in families."

Presumably this is the only reason why children can't use a knife at the age of four. It's nothing to do with the development of fine motor skills being slower in some children than others, or that some parents choose to make mealtimes about being together and sharing positive experiences rather than a draconian Victorian lecture on the subject of table manners.

But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.
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