Nov. 18, 2011 -- As childhood obesity rises, more schools have banned parents from bringing baked goods and other sugary treats for class parties.
Now a new study suggests those controversial "cupcake crackdowns" may be on the right track.
The study shows that kids can eat as many as one-third of all the calories they need in a day at a typical half-hour birthday party.
And those calories are coming from foods high in fat and sugar and low in nutrients -- such as cake, fruit punch, ice cream, and chips.
U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that getting no more than 5% to 15% of your daily calories from solid fats and added sugars.
"No one wants to be the grinch who stole cupcakes," says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, in New Haven, Conn., in an email.
"But consider that there are multiple holidays each year, and every kid in a class has a birthday. If every one of those celebrations is an opportunity for caloric overload, it adds up to real trouble," says Katz, who was not involved in the new study.
The good news: When fruit is served alongside those sugary treats, kids actually eat it. In fact, having fruit at a party appears to cut kids' party calories.
The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition, Education, and Behavior.
Counting Calories at Classroom Parties
For the study, researchers watched four classroom birthday parties for preschoolers and kindergartners.
They measured foods and drinks served before the party started, watched kids eat, and noted how many servings they had and how much they left on their plates.
One slice of chocolate cake and fruit punch were served at each party. In some cases, parents also brought ice cream and chips. Fresh fruit was also available at two parties.
At the two parties where fruit wasn't available, the kids each ate an average of 344 to 455 calories.
"It surprised me enormously," says study researcher Kathy K. Isoldi, PhD, a registered dietitian and an assistant professor of nutrition at Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y. "That's even a lot of calories for me. And this is just essentially one snack."
But when fruit was also an option, the counts dropped somewhat, to 259 to 405 calories.
"We have to think about what we're offering children because they're associating celebration with all this sugar and sweet treats, and they do like fruit," Isoldi tells WebMD.
Planning Healthier School Parties
School nutrition experts praised the study, which is the first to take stock of how much and what kinds of foods kids eat at a typical classroom celebration.
"The calories were a little astounding," says Deborah Beauvais, RD, who serves as nutrition director for two New York state school districts.
"This gives the whole birthday party thing some teeth, if you will," says Beauvais, who is in the middle of revising her schools' wellness policies.
She says some principals in her school districts have already curbed food at school parties, opting for other ways to celebrate special days.
Kids who have birthdays get to wear paper crowns, for example, and parents are encouraged to donate a book to be read in the child's classroom.
Other schools try to limit the number of classroom birthday parties by combining them, so that all the kids who have birthdays in the same month have one party.
"Kids are consuming, on average, 300 calories for a birthday party. Do we want to do that once a week or once a month?" Beauvais asks.
"I don't want to become the birthday party police, but I think this research is a great tool" to help educate parents and teachers about healthier alternatives, says Beauvais, who is also an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.