Breakfast enhances learning power for the morning

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

What simple practice seems to have one of the greatest effects on how well children do in school? The answer is: Eating breakfast.

Study after study has shown that children and adult students who eat breakfast do more and better work in school than those who don't. Those who don't eat breakfast tend to tire more quickly, be more irritable and react less quickly than those who do eat breakfast.

For example, in a recent study conducted in the United Kingdom, school children were randomly given one or four breakfasts on four consecutive days, then tested for cognitive skills (attention, working memory and episodic memory) throughout the morning. The breakfasts consisted of wheat cereal and milk, oat cereal and milk, a sugar-based beverage or nothing at all. The children scored significantly better on the days following the two cereal-based breakfasts than when they had no breakfast or only a sugar-based beverage for breakfast.

Other studies have reported similar results. As might be expected, the impacts of eating breakfast at home or school are greatest in those studies that focus on impoverished populations. However, even in otherwise healthy well-fed children, starting off with a good breakfast seems to enhance the capacity for mental performance in school.

Why is breakfast so important? The reasons are many. First, breakfast adds to the overall nourishment of the child. Studies typically show that children who eat breakfast at home or school score higher in overall diet quality than those who don't eat breakfast. Even marginal iron deficiency can affect children's behavior and cognition. Iron-enriched cereals and breads are an important source of iron for most children.

Breakfast also relieves feelings of hunger. When children are hungry, they have more difficulty concentrating on such tasks as arithmetic and reading retention. In both short and long term studies conducted in Jamaica, students fed breakfast at school consistently did better on cognitive tests than those who were not fed breakfast. This was especially true among children who were short or underweight for their height. An added bonus in the long-term studies was better attendance among the students in the groups fed breakfast than in the control groups not receiving breakfast at school.

If breakfast is so important, why is it often skipped? The most frequently heard reasons include: "There isn't time," "Food that early makes me sick," "I don't like breakfast foods," and "I'm skipping breakfast for weight control." In many cases, all that's needed is to rethink or reframe one's concepts about breakfast. Breakfast can be simple or elaborate, cooked or uncooked, sit-down or eaten on-the-run, low or high in calories, mundane or varied. The main thing to remember is to include it in your children's - and your own - morning routine.

Besides lack of time, saving calories is the most common reason given for skipping breakfast. If your typical breakfast is a soft drink or a couple of donuts and coffee with two teaspoons of sugar, you've reason to be concerned about the value of the calories you're taking in for breakfast. The answer, however, is not to skip breakfast, but to select a breakfast that provides you with the nutrients you need to get you going for the fewest calories. For example, a breakfast of eight ounces skim milk with one ounce dry cereal or toast and six ounces fruit juice provides less than 250 calories but enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to help you avoid mid-morning fatigue and the subsequent urge to eat anything in sight.