Schools don't need 'cupcake bans,' but nutritional recommendations are helpful, study finds

As states grapple with the growing problem of childhood obesity, lawmakers and school districts must make critical decisions about nutritional policies in the education system.

Previous studies have shown that children tend to consume a lot of calories during classroom birthday parties or other similar events, but banning cupcakes and sweet treats may not be the answer, researchers from the University of Illinois found in a new study. But schools with district or state policies that discourage sugary foods are more likely to restrict those foods, the research suggests, which could have a positive impact on the childhood obesity epidemic.

Recommendations better than rules

For the study, researchers surveyed more than 1,200 elementary schools in 47 states during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years. The team then compared corresponding district policies and state laws that related to classroom parties. They found that when policies did address parties, they were written as recommendations, not restrictions.

About half of all schools in the study were located in districts that recommended a limitation on sweets, and 18.5 percent of schools were part of districts that also had state guidelines about this subject.

The study found that schools with a district or state policy that discouraged sugary snacks and beverages were 2.5 times more likely to restrict those foods at classroom parties than schools without those policies.

"Policies can affect school practices, even when the policies are only recommendations," said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the study and research scientist at UIC's Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Changes 'take time'

National recommendations about classroom parties include limiting celebrations to once a month, serving healthy snacks and planning activities that don't revolve around food.

Yet restrictions or outright bans on sweet treats during birthday or holiday parties are often met with resistance from parents, Turner said.

"Changing norms will take time," she noted.

And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture set forth nationwide standards about school foods and beverages with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the department regulations don't address school parties.

More information about the study can be found in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Source: University of Illinois

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