By Claire Drummond, Flinders University
How many times have we heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? There’s overwhelming evidence to suggest that it is, especially for children. Eating breakfast has been shown to improve children’s behaviour at school, and poor eating patterns can impair adolescent growth and development.
Put simply, a good quality breakfast helps provide young people with the energy they need for the day, and the nutrients they need to grow and develop.
Fuel for the school day
In the short-term, eating a good quality breakfast can increase feelings of alertness and motivation to learn. Children’s high metabolic turnover and rapid growth rates mean they need optimal nutrition. They have higher demands on their glycogen (or energy) stores overnight as they sleep, and as they generally sleep longer than adults, children have a longer “fasting” time (longer time without food overnight). Therefore, eating a nutritious breakfast is especially important to provide fuel for the oxidation of glucose.
When blood glucose levels are low, hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are released which can cause feelings of agitation and irritability. This can then affect a child’s concentration and may even cause destructive outbursts. Children who don’t eat breakfast struggle to summon enough energy in the morning to cope with the demands of school.
Eating a good breakfast can lead to better academic performance and a higher enjoyment of school. Also, children who regularly skip breakfast are more likely to be disruptive in class or to be absent from school. Repeatedly eating breakfast can lead to children learning to associate feelings of well-being with feeling less hungry.
In the long-term, eating breakfast affects a child’s health, which in turn will have a positive effect on brain performance. Research has found that a good nutritional profile can lead to sustained improved performance. This would be much harder to achieve if kids skip breakfast.
There is also an association with mental health and a good quality breakfast. Common breakfast foods such as milk, fortified breakfast cereals and bread are good sources of nutrients that affect brain function. Research has found that eating a breakfast with a variety of food groups that increase the intake of vitamins and minerals at the start of the day can lead to better mental health in adolescents.
Children who skip breakfast are also more likely to snack. Snacks eaten between meals can provide up to one-quarter of the daily energy intake in some adolescent populations. Since snacking is often associated with energy dense food linked to the development of childhood overweight and obesity, educating children into a good breakfast routine at the start of the day is essential.
Not enough kids are eating breakfast
Breakfast skipping is common among adolescents and adults in western countries. Teen girls are the least likely to eat in the morning. A study of 10,000 children and young people found that approximately 20% of children and more than 31% of adolescents skipped breakfast regularly.
The reasons given for not eating breakfast are usually poor time management or lack of appetite. But it’s also linked to parental influence: whether a parent does or doesn’t eat breakfast affects whether their children will.
Health-compromising behaviours and unhealthy lifestyles have also been linked with breakfast skipping in young people. Smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption are more likely among individuals who rarely eat breakfast.
What can we do about it?
Due to the importance of a good breakfast and the association with mental alertness among children, breakfast clubs are becoming increasingly normal in primary schools. A review on the efficacy of school feeding programs found that many programs are done so to address the nutritional deficiencies that affect brain growth and performance in students.
School breakfast programs are not new in Australia and can be traced back to the late 1970s. The Australian Red Cross’ Good Start Breakfast Club has been developed in an attempt to combat food insecurity and disadvantage in low-socio-economic areas. Programs like this help local communities develop breakfast programs that suit schools’ needs by providing fact sheets on issues such as funding the programs and sourcing volunteers.
But there’s limited evidence as to how well school breakfast clubs do in increasing children’s breakfast consumption. And some researchers suggest there is even a lack of solid evidence on the benefits of eating breakfast on cognitive or academic performance. They say that school breakfast programs should not be used as an argument to bolster school performance.
Eating habits formed in adolescence continue into adulthood. Therefore, poor dietary patterns among young people have important implications for their life-long health and well-being. Continued education around the significance of eating a nourishing breakfast for children, adolescents and parents is essential.
Because parental influences can determine whether children and adolescents eat breakfast, encouraging parents to eat breakfast regularly can play an important role in getting kids to eat in the morning.
Claire Drummond does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.