Breakfast Boosts Brain Power

By Mary Lee Chin
Breakfast Boosts Children's Brain Power
Would you like your kids to be smarter, brighter, better behaved? By now most people understand the importance of breakfast and its ability to help children concentrate on learning, think more clearly and be on their best behavior at school.
September 1, 2013

Would you like your kids to be smarter, brighter, better behaved? By now most people understand the importance of breakfast and its ability to help children concentrate on learning, think more clearly and be on their best behavior at school. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is advice that we’ve heard over and over, and has been backed by significant research evidence that provides compelling reasons to eat a nutritious morning meal consistently throughout the school year.
Yet children of all ages have lots of excuses for missing the breaking - of - the - fast. While the habit affects boys and girls of all ages, the worst offenders are girls and older teens. In a nationally representative sample of over 2,500 students ages 6-18, 1 out of every 5 kids do not eat breakfast and 34% of female adolescents do not eat breakfast. (1) A 2011 survey of 14,000 Americans found that while nearly all toddlers and preschool-age children are eating breakfast, breakfast consumptions declines as American children grow older; 77% of young children eat breakfast every day, falling to 50% in the middle-school years and 36% among high school students. (2)
Experts believe that many girls forego the meal in an effort to control calorie intake and weight. Yet this under-eating, drives overeating later in the day. In fact, skipping breakfast is more likely to cause weight gain than it is to prevent it. A 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that adolescents who ate breakfast daily had a lower body mass index than teens who never ate breakfast or only on occasion. (3)
For older teens, their biology may be conspiring against having enough time for the morning meal.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep health is important for adolescents to maintain optimal energy and a healthy lifestyle. As any parent knows from trying to rouse a teen in the morning, teens’ sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking -- meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 PM. (4) Add in homework, athletics, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs, and teens are not able to fit in their needed 9 ¼ hours of sleep a night, waking up groggy and lethargic. Sleeping in as late as they can in the morning, they have only minutes to get ready and get to school -- and breakfast is missed yet again.
There are other reasons that many children come to school without eating breakfast: they don’t have time, they aren’t hungry when they wake up, or their parents are too busy to prepare it.
And sadly too often, lack of family resources cause children to go to school hungry. In a recent report by Share our Strength, 77% of teachers reported seeing children come to school hungry because of parents or caregivers not having enough money to buy food. (5)
The case for a good breakfast

Every student pre-school through high school, needs to eat breakfast because a hungry child cannot learn. All children and adults experience “transient hunger,” which is eliminated by giving your body the proper nutrients through eating. Breakfast, after a night of fasting, eliminates the transient hunger symptoms such as headache, fatigue, sleepiness, restlessness and decreased attention span, which are detriments to successful learning. Eating breakfast provides enough energy to concentrate and accomplish classroom tasks. Numerous studies confirm that breakfast helps with better grades, better scores on achievement tests and better classroom behavior. (6) (7)
Kids who eat breakfast seem to have an easier time learning. Breakfast eaters are able to concentrate in the classroom, make fewer errors and score higher on achievement tests.  One of the first studies to examine IQ and breakfast consumption found that children who ate breakfast regularly had significantly higher full scale, verbal and performance IQ test scores. (8)
Many schools, cognizant of the impact of breakfast on test scores, provide breakfast at school during standardized test periods. The academic achievement the test measures are however, obviously going to be the result of long term learning that has been taking place in the classrooms. Most research is based on children eating consistent, healthy breakfasts throughout the year, not only during these evaluation periods.
Hunger, which affects learning, can also result in inadequate nutrition and poor overall health. Hungry children have more respiratory illness and are absent from school more often than children who are well fed. Kids who eat breakfast are more likely to be in school, less likely to be absent, less likely to be late, and less likely to be ill. Children who don’t eat breakfast are less likely to consume all the essential nutrients they need to stay healthy and grow.  Overall, kids who eat breakfast are in better nutritional status. (8)
While younger children have increased reporting of stomach illness, often necessitating a nurse’s intervention, middle or high school kids may experience deficits in physical performance such as sports. And at a time when there is a focus on promoting physical activity in childhood, a more nutritionally complete diet, with enough calories, nutrients, vitamins and minerals also means more energy and endurance to engage in physical activity.
It has also been found that breakfast eaters behave better in school, cause fewer fights, are more cooperative, and are less of a discipline problem. (9)
Strategies to make sure your kids eat breakfast.

For many children, participation in The School Breakfast Program, a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions, may be the answer. Similar to the School Lunch program, schools receive cash subsidies from USDA for each meal served, and meals are offered free or at reduced price to eligible children. School breakfasts are planned to provide about one-fourth of a child’s daily nutritional needs, meeting federal requirements. Strategies that include “grab and go” and “breakfast in the classroom” as well as offering free breakfast for all in schools with high percentages of free and reduced-price eligible students, help reduce barriers to participation such as timing issues and the stigma that “it is only for poor kids.” (10) Enrolling students in The Breakfast Program is also an alternative for kids who have long bus rides or aren’t hungry when they first wake up.
Make breakfast a family priority, with parents setting the precedent and becoming good role models. There is a solid body of research that shows parents are key players in influencing the eating behaviors of children and adolescents. (11)
While eating together as a family for breakfast may be ideal, the reality is that families today live busy lives that can make it difficult to sit down long enough in the morning to a nutritious meal. Set the bedtime a few minutes earlier as well as the alarm in the morning. Prep food, and set the table the night before, and keep breakfast foods highly visible and in convenient spots.
And eating a healthy breakfast, as opposed to the kind containing doughnuts, is essential to achieve the benefits of breakfast. It's worth noting that most studies linking breakfast to weight control loss looked at a healthy breakfast containing protein and/or whole grains -- not meals loaded with fat and calories.
A balanced breakfast containing whole grain carbohydrates, protein, and fat provides a sustained release of energy in children, delaying symptoms of hunger for several hours. Keep a well stocked pantry with whole grain cereals, string cheese, single serve yogurt and mini bagels. A quick and easy standard breakfast is whole grain toast and cereal, with fruit or juice and a glass of milk.

Looking to decrease calories? Use low-fat, lower calorie options in these breakfast suggestions: yogurt or sugar-free cereals sweetened with zero calorie aspartame; skim, 1% or fat-free milk; and low-fat cheese. Be creative and tempt appetites with:

      “Lite-yogurt” parfait with layers of fruit and granola
Blender smoothie with “lite-yogurt,” fruit and juice
Whole wheat toaster waffle with berries or applesauce; and flavored yogurt
Whole grain English muffin with a slice of Pepper Jack or Cheddar; glass of juice
Breakfast burrito with salsa, eggs and cheese; orange juice
Pita pocket stuffed with fruit salad; glass of milk
Tortilla layered with peanut butter heated in microwave; fruit

Mary Lee Chin, Denver, CO, is a registered dietitian and provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.

  1. Gleason, P., & Suitor, C. Children’s diets in the mid-1990s: Dietary intake and its relationship with school meal participation. Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series, No. CN-01-CD1. Alexandria, VA: USDA, FNS, Office of Analysis, Nutrition and Evaluation. 2001; 6. Available at:ý. Accessed August 16, 2013.
  2. 2011 Kellogg’s Breakfast in America Survey. Available at: Accessed August 16, 2013.
  3. Timlin, M., Pereira, M., Story, M, Neumark-Sztainer. Breakfast Eating and Weight Change in a 5-Year Prospective Analysis of Adolescents: Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics 2008 Mar;121(3):e638-45.  Available at: Accessed August 16, 2013.
  4. National Sleep Foundation. Teens and Sleep. Available at: Accessed August 16, 2013.
  5. Share our Strength Teachers Report 2012. Hunger in our Schools. Available at: Accessed August 16, 2013.
  6. Food Research and Action Center. Breakfast for Learning: Scientific research on the link between children’s nutrition and academic performance. Available at: Accessed August 16, 2013.
  7. Kleinman R, Hall S, Green H, Korzec-Ramirez D, Patton K, Pagano M, Murphy J. Diet, breakfast, and academic performance in children. Ann Nutr Metab. 2002;46 Suppl 1:24-30.
  8. Liu J, Hwang WT, Dickerman B, Compher C. Regular breakfast consumption is associated with increased IQ in kindergarten children. Early Hum Dev. 2013 Apr;89(4):257-62.
  9. Benton D, Maconie A, Williams, C. The influence of the glycaemic load of breakfast on the behaviour of children in school. Physiol Behav. 2007; 92(4):717-24.
  10. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). School Breakfast Scorecard: School Year 2010-2011. Available at:ý. Accessed August 16, 2013.
  11. Tami M Videon, T., Manning, C. Influences on adolescent eating patterns: the importance of family meals. Journal of Adolescent Health.2003; 32(5): 365–373. Available at: Accessed August 16, 2013.

Breakfast Boosts Brain Power

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