When I was growing up, I remember my father making sure that me and my four siblings got a decent breakfast inside us before leaving the house for school. Like a lot of parents, my Dad believed that eating breakfast helped to set little bodies up for the day. A compliant child, I spent my formative years munching my way through bowlfuls of Shredded Wheat, Alpen and Reddy Brek, convinced that this must be doing me some good. These days, I’m far less keen to swallow conventional nutritional wisdom without thinking, and recently resolved to discover if there is any real evidence for the benefits of eating breakfast in kids. As it happens, research suggests that having breakfast helps feed the brain, and can actually boost a child’s learning at school. It appears that taking my father’s advice and not forgoing my morning meal may have turned out to be a smart move after all.
The brain needs fuel to function properly, and gets the bulk of its requirements in this respect directly from food. The brain’s principle fuel is sugar, and maintaining adequate levels of this most basic energy source in the bloodstream is critical for normal mental function. Many children may go 10 or more hours between their last meal of the day and the next morning. With such a long gap between fuel stops, it is not uncommon for blood sugar levels to drop to sub-normal levels overnight. This can cause a child to be tired and grumpy in the morning, and can certainly take the edge off even the sharpest of minds.
One important benefit of eating breakfast is that it supplies ready fuel to the brain. A number of studies have found that when children skip the first meal of the day, memory, verbal fluency, and mathematical dexterity may suffer. By restoring blood sugar levels after the overnight fast, eating breakfast helps ensure a child has a productive morning in the classroom. However, regular breakfasting might have important long term benefits as well. Breakfast may also supply important nutrients to a growing body and mind, thereby improving a child’s general nutritional status. This is likely to reap dividend in terms of physical well-being and mental functioning on a global level too.
To date, there have been three studies that have examined the impact of eating breakfast on children’s behaviour and learning. Interestingly, these studies found that children who did not skip breakfast were less likely to skip school too. So, the evidence suggests that eating breakfast not only helps learning, but may increase the amount of learning a child is subjected to too. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that all three of the studies that have been conducted in this area found that eating breakfast is associated with better performance in a variety of scholastic tests.
Getting down to the specifics of what to feed a child in the morning, my preference would be a bowl of porridge or oat-based muesli. A hard-boiled or poached egg with a slice of proper wholemeal toast is another decent option. In addition, if a child is happy to have a piece or two of fruit, or even some freshly squeezed fruit juice, then so much the better. Getting something healthy into a child early on in the day may well enhance the chances of stuff going in up top too.