“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 .
- 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” . In another study, 12-15 year olds who ate breakfast reported having more energy and fullness, and lower tiredness and hunger .
- 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 , and to consume less fruit and vegetables . 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 . 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  to whatever the kids ate on their own, including ready-to-eat cereals . 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  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 . 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 . So the best way to get them to eat breakfast may be to eat breakfast with them.
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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.
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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.
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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.