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How important is eating breakfast to my son's performance in school?

He usually grabs a donut as he dashes for the door...

My middle-school-age son hates to get up early, and usually just has time to grab a pastry as he races out the door to the school bus. I know nutritionally he isn't getting a balanced breakfast - but can that also affect his ability to learn at school?

Robert Woodford | Pediatrician

Robert Woodford

For success during the school day, eating breakfast has been shown to be an important factor in school performance.

Research shows a big benefit in school

Research has shown that children who consume breakfast have enhanced performance on arithmetic, problem solving skills, logical reasoning, and attention.  These children also have better test grades and school attendance. Skipping breakfast may have a negative effect on problem solving skills and memory.  Subjectively, consuming breakfast may also improve alertness, motivation and prevent fatigue.

Why might this be? 

Upon awakening in the morning, many school age children have not eaten for 10-12 hours. This overnight fast, when accompanied by a missed morning meal, leads to metabolic stress.  Researchers have studied metabolic factors including blood glucose levels, differences in brain size, liver size, the ability of the liver to store glycogen, and muscle mass. 

The hypothesis is that when a whole grain, high protein and lower fat diet is consumed, the stomach empties slower, and due to more sustained blood glucose levels, cognitive performance is enhanced.

Who is most affected?

There is evidence that the younger the child, the greater this stress. There is also some suggestion that girls may be more affected than boys when breakfast is missed.

In my practice, about 20% of children do not eat breakfast before going to school and only about half regularly eat breakfast.  Reasons for not eating a regular breakfast include not feeling hungry, not having enough time, and some get off to school without having a parent at home.  I rarely hear from older children that they purposely skip breakfast in an effort to maintain a lower body weight.  Of those that eat breakfast regularly, some consider “breakfast” as piece of pastry and a glass of juice.

It is now accepted that the regular consumption of breakfast before school is better than not eating breakfast.  Studies have also been done to look at the composition of the breakfast, but no recommendations can be made regarding the size or composition of the ideal breakfast for all children.

Some kids do not like what is served for school lunch and they consume very little food, midday. Once they get home they may consume high sugar, high fat snack foods and/or sweet beverages before eating their evening meal. We can hypothesize what effect this might have on afternoon classroom learning and evening homework.

My recommendations for a good breakfast

I advocate sending children to school with a daily breakfast, high in fiber and protein.  This would include:

  • A serving of whole grain
  • A fruit
  • A serving of dairy
  • A protein source: an egg, low-fat breakfast meat or peanut butter.
  • To maintain adequate hydration, remember to have 8 ounces of milk.  
  • I do not suggest more than 4 ounces of juice due to the high sugar content of all juices.
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