How Important is Breakfast Really?

“Make sure you eat breakfast”.  That was the last piece of advice my mom gave me when I left for college and I’ve always tried to heed it, if only because I love a large bowl of Frosted Flakes.  But now that I’m the parent of a son who never wants to eat before school, I’ve often asked myself if breakfast is important enough to warrant an argument.  Is it really the most important meal of the day? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself the same question.  Well, research shows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for growing kids.  Eating breakfast has been shown to enhance cognitive function, motor functional skills, mood and ability to process numerical information, as well as being associated with lower body mass index, having a healthy body weight and increased consumption of fruit and vegetables.  In fact, the amount of research supporting the importance of breakfast is overwhelming.  It seems my mom was right.   

What the research says:

Several recent studies have investigated the relationship between children’s physical and academic well-being and their consumption of breakfast.  The studies conducted are usually observational, relying on self-reported or parent-reported assessments of academic performance, weight, and dietary habits.  Although most studies are retrospective and are not designed prospectively to determine a casual relationship between breakfast consumption and academic performance, the results are overwhelming and point to a strong relationship between eating breakfast and success. 

  • Enhanced cognitive function.  Scientists have found that eating breakfast improves short-term memory [7,19], as well as improving and maintaining performance on cognitive function tests [2,4,7].  In addition, eating breakfast has been shown to improve one’s ability to process numerical information [11]. 
  • Better mood. “Consumption of breakfast showed positive effects on the mood of the study population. Eating breakfast caused improvements in positive affect, information uptake, alertness and a decrease in negative affect” [19].  In another study, 12-15 year olds who ate breakfast reported having more energy and fullness, and lower tiredness and hunger [2].
  • Healthier Lifestyle.  Children who skip breakfast were shown to have higher body mass indexes [6,9, 26, 27], to exercise less [5,9], to obtain poorer results in motor function skill tests [26], and to consume less fruit and vegetables [16].  You may be wondering if you just read that right.  Yes, eating breakfast is associated with kids eating more fruits and veggies. Researchers in Denmark found that children who did not regularly ate breakfast were less likely to eat either fruits or vegetables, and this aversion was highest for teenagers as compared to pre-teens [16].   This relationship may be due to the decreased influence of parents; children who were allowed to skip breakfast also being less influenced to eat healthy foods in other meals.  Whatever the cause, the fact remains that skipping breakfast is associated with less healthy kids.

So what’s the take-home?

Here’s what you need to remember: eating breakfast is important and we should do everything we can to get kids to eat breakfast. The vast majority of published research points to the importance of breakfast when considering academic and physical performance for kids and teenagers.  That means better academic performance, improved ability to process information, better outcomes in motor function skills, better mood, healthier eating habits and a healthier weight.  It may be hard to believe that one meal can so dramatically impact our children, but the research is overwhelming. It does.

What should your kids eat for breakfast?

The breakfasts used in these studies varied dramatically, from whole wheat bread with butter and Nutella [19] to whatever the kids ate on their own, including ready-to-eat cereals [24].  Whether they’re eating oatmeal or sugary cereals, the results are clear that eating breakfast is betting than skipping it.  But you may be wondering if some breakfast foods are better than others.  The most important factor seems to be the glycemic index (a measure of how quickly carbohydrates break down and release glucose into the bloodstream).  Studies have reported the importance of low-glycemic index breakfasts (such as oatmeal or high-fiber cereals) for optimizing results on cognitive function tests [3, 14] and satiety [13] as compared to high-glycemic index foods (like sugary cereals or pastries).  In a study conducted at Tufts University, researchers found that “Boys and girls showed enhanced spatial memory and girls showed improved short-term memory after consuming oatmeal”, as compared to ready-to-eat cereals or skipping breakfast altogether [12].  However, more research needs to be done.  The most important factor seems to be eating breakfast, whatever it may be. 

One last thing…

Research shows that boys and girls whose mother often skipped meals were more likely to skip breakfast [22].  So the best way to get them to eat breakfast may be to eat breakfast with them. 

References:

1.     The Association between Skipping Breakfast and Biochemical Variables in Sedentary Obese Children and Adolescents. Freitas Júnior IF, Christofaro DG, Codogno JS, Monteiro PA, Silveira LS, Fernandes RA.  J Pediatr. 2012 Nov;161(5):871-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2012.04.055. Epub 2012 Jun 7.

2.     Breakfast consumption and cognitive function in adolescent schoolchildren. Cooper SB, Bandelow S, Nevill ME. Physiol Behav. 2011 Jul 6;103(5):431-9.

3.     Breakfast glycaemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children. Cooper SB, Bandelow S, Nute ML, Morris JG, Nevill ME. Br J Nutr. 2012 Jun;107(12):1823-32.

4.     Breakfast is associated with enhanced cognitive function in schoolchildren. An internet based study. Wesnes KA, Pincock C, Scholey A. Appetite. 2012 Dec;59(3):646-9.

5.     Breakfast skipping and health-compromising behaviors in adolescents and adults. Keski-Rahkonen A, Kaprio J, Rissanen A, Virkkunen M, Rose RJ. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jul;57(7):842-53.

6.     Breakfast skipping is associated with differences in meal patterns, macronutrient intakes and overweight among pre-school children. Dubois L, Girard M, Potvin Kent M, Farmer A, Tatone-Tokuda F. Public Health Nutr. 2009 Jan;12(1):19-28. Epub 2008 Mar 18.

7.     Breakfast skipping in prepubertal obese children: hormonal, metabolic and cognitive consequences. Maffeis C, Fornari E, Surano MG, Comencini E, Corradi M, Tommasi M, Fasan I, Cortese S. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar;66(3):314-21.

8.     Dietary-related and physical activity-related predictors of obesity in children: a 2-year prospective study.  Carlson JA, Crespo NC, Sallis JF, Patterson RE, Elder JP.  Child Obes. 2012 Apr;8(2):110-5.

9.     Dietary behaviors, physical activity and sedentary lifestyle associated with overweight and obesity, and their socio-demographic correlates, among Pakistani primary school children. Mushtaq MU, Gull S, Mushtaq K, Shahid U, Shad MA, Akram J. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2011 Nov 25;8:130.

10. Eating habits in relation to body fatness and gender in adolescents--results from the 'SWEDES' study. Vågstrand K, Barkeling B, Forslund HB, Elfhag K, Linné Y, Rössner S, Lindroos AK. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Apr;61(4):517-25. Epub 2006 Sep 27.

11. Eating breakfast enhances the efficiency of neural networks engaged during mental arithmetic in school-aged children. Pivik RT, Tennal KB, Chapman SD, Gu Y. Physiol Behav. 2012 Jun 25;106(4):548-55.

12. Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children.  Mahoney CR, Taylor HA, Kanarek RB, Samuel P. Physiol Behav. 2005 Aug 7;85(5):635-45.

13. The effect of a low glycaemic index breakfast on blood glucose, insulin, lipid profiles, blood pressure, body weight, body composition and satiety in obese and overweight individuals: a pilot study. Pal S, Lim S, Egger G. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Jun;27(3):387-93.

14. Effects on cognitive performance of modulating the postprandial blood glucose profile at breakfast. Nilsson A, Radeborg K, Björck I. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Sep;66(9):1039-43.

15. Effects on cognitive performance of eating compared with omitting breakfast in elementary schoolchildren.  Kral TV, Heo M, Whiteford LM, Faith MS.  J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2012 Jan;33(1):9-16

16. Fruit and vegetable intake is associated with frequency of breakfast, lunch and evening meal: cross-sectional study of 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds. Pedersen TP, Meilstrup C, Holstein BE, Rasmussen M. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Feb 6;9:9.

17. Glycaemic index and glycaemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.  Micha R, Rogers PJ, Nelson M.  Br J Nutr. 2011 Nov;106(10):1552-61.

18. The glycaemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Micha R, Rogers PJ, Nelson M. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep;64(9):948-57.

19. Influence of having breakfast on cognitive performance and mood in 13- to 20-year-old high school students: results of a crossover trial.  Widenhorn-Müller K, Hille K, Klenk J, Weiland U. Pediatrics. 2008 Aug;122(2):279-84.

20. Ingesting breakfast meals of different glycaemic load does not alter cognition and satiety in children. Brindal E, Baird D, Danthiir V, Wilson C, Bowen J, Slater A, Noakes M. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Oct;66(10):1166-71.

21. Longitudinal study of skipping breakfast and weight change in adolescents. Berkey CS, Rockett HR, Gillman MW, Field AE, Colditz GA. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Oct;27(10):1258-66.

22. Maternal and best friends' influences on meal-skipping behaviours. Pearson N, Williams L, Crawford D, Ball K. Br J Nutr. 2012 Sep;108(5):932-8

23. Nutritional quality of breakfast and physical activity independently predict the literacy and numeracy scores of children after adjusting for socioeconomic status.  O'Dea JA, Mugridge AC. Health Educ Res. 2012 Dec;27(6):975-85

24. The relationship of breakfast skipping and type of breakfast consumption with nutrient intake and weight status in children and adolescents: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2006. Deshmukh-Taskar PR, Nicklas TA, O'Neil CE, Keast DR, Radcliffe JD, Cho S. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Jun;110(6):869-78

25. Relationships between physical activity, obesity and meal frequency in adolescents. Mota J, Fidalgo F, Silva R, Ribeiro JC, Santos R, Carvalho J, Santos MP. Ann Hum Biol. 2008 Jan-Feb;35(1):1-10.

26. Swiss children consuming breakfast regularly have better motor functional skills and are less overweight than breakfast skippers.  Baldinger N, Krebs A, Müller R, Aeberli I.  J Am Coll Nutr. 2012 Apr;31(2):87-93.

27. Systematic review demonstrating that breakfast consumption influences body weight outcomes in children and adolescents in Europe. Szajewska H, Ruszczynski M.  Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2010 Feb;50(2):113-9. Review.