As we enter a New Year and new school term, our thoughts turn to resolutions, like how to improve our children’s diets or assist in their educational achievement. Can something as simple as breakfast help both?
There is a concern that a substantial number of children are skipping breakfast and arriving at school hungry, negatively impacting their behaviour and mood, as well as their ability to learn and perform well at school. In 2012, a UK survey of 65 schools found that 14% of children ages seven to 15 reported skipping breakfast, a third of whom claimed they didn’t eat anything until lunchtime. Breakfast skipping was higher in girls than boys and more common in secondary school than primary school pupils.1
Why is breakfast important?
Children and adolescents who skip breakfast miss the opportunity to consume a nutrient-rich meal. Breakfast provides energy, and can provide vitamins and minerals essential for growth, development and maintenance of good health. Breakfast products (such as cereals, breads and dairy foods) make a significant contribution towards micronutrient intakes in children, particularly iron (which supports the immune system), B vitamins (involved in the formation of healthy red blood cells) and calcium (important for bone development). Breakfast cereals (particularly wholegrain varieties) also provide fibre, which is important for gut health. There may also be important benefits to bodyweight, as evidence suggests, perhaps contrary to popular belief, that those who regularly consume breakfast are more likely to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and less likely to be overweight.2,3
Eating breakfast may also help improve certain short-term aspects of cognition, including problem solving, concentration and episodic memory (the ability to store and recall information about an event).4,5 Habitual breakfast consumption and school breakfast clubs have, in scientific reviews, been found to be associated with better academic performance, particularly in undernourished children.6 A recent study conducted in over 3,000 children aged nine to 11 attending primary schools in Wales that were participating in a trial of the Welsh Government’s Primary School Free Breakfast Initiative found that children who ate a healthy breakfast (ie, cereals, bread, fruits and milk products) before school scored higher on Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs) compared to those who either ate an unhealthy breakfast (crisps and sweet snacks) or ate no breakfast.7
The findings are promising and suggest that promoting healthy breakfast consumption might improve overall academic performance in schoolchildren. However, the methods used in studies to measure academic performance and/or breakfast frequency, composition and intake, and confounders such as socioeconomic status and physical activity, make firm conclusions with regards to the associations between breakfast, behaviour and attainment difficult to determine.
How can healthcare professionals help?
Research confirms that breakfast is an important meal and should be encouraged. As healthcare professionals, it is important to find opportunities to promote and communicate the importance of starting the day with a healthy breakfast to parents and their children. As part of a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle it may have beneficial short and long-term effects on dietary quality, weight maintenance and mental health. This is important not just in young children (so that good dietary habits become instilled at an early age and will hopefully continue into later childhood and beyond), but also as children begin secondary school, as this is a time when breakfast consumption often declines.
1. Hoyland A, McWilliams KA, Duff RJ et al. Breakfast consumption in UK schoolchildren and provision of school breakfast clubs. Nutrition Bulletin 2012;37:232-240.
2. Van Lippevelde W, Te Velde SJ, Verloigne M et al. Associations between family-related factors, breakfast consumption and BMI among 10 to 12-year-old European children: the cross-sectional ENERGY-study. PLOS One 2013;8(11):e79550
3. Rampersaud GC, Pereira MA, Girard BL et al. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. JAMA 2005;105(5):743-60.
4. Cooper SB, Bandelow S and Nevill ME. Breakfast consumption and cognitive function in adolescent schoolchildren. Physiology & Behavior 2011;103(5):431-9.
5. Wesnes KA, Pincock C and Scholey A. Breakfast is associated with enhanced cognitive function in schoolchildren. An internet based study. Appetite 2012;59(3):646-649.
6. Adolphus K, Lawton CL and Dye L. The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2013;7:425.
7. Littlecott HJ, Moore GF, Moore L et al. Association between breakfast consumption and educational outcomes in 9-11-year-old children. PHN 2015[epub ahead of print].
Ayela Spiro, Helena Gibson-Moore and Sarah Coe are all nutrition scientists at The British Nutrition Foundation. All three work together to be expert bloggers in the Nursing in Practice nutrition resources centre. Individual descriptions are below:
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