Kids Who Eat Breakfast Perform Better at School, Studies Show

Children are sensitive to environmental factors, and changes in food and diet can have dramatic effects on their behavior and moods.  Balancing knowledge about nutrition, children’s tastes, and price poses a challenge for even the savviest and most organized parents.

Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day?

At one point or another, all of us have been told to eat breakfast because it is “the most important meal of the day.”  Yet many people continue to skip breakfast, and offer a variety of excuses such as “I don’t have time” or “I’m not hungry in the morning.”  While there recommendations for the timing of meals and diet plans, research has shown that for school-age kids, eating good-quality breakfasts has a substantial impact on their health and wellbeing.   Eating breakfast has been shown to:

  • improve academic performance,

  • support mental development,

  • help children and adolescents maintain a healthy weight.

Unfortunately, breakfast consumption among children and adolescents has actually been declining in recent years.

Breakfast and Academic Performance

When children skip breakfast, their ability to pay attention in school decreases, leading to lower grades and lower rates of attendance.

One way that breakfast improves academic performance is simply by alleviating hunger. A study conducted by Kleinman in 2002 examined the difference in academic performance between students who ate breakfast and those who didn’t.  In this study, ninety seven Boston Public Schools students participated in a free universal school breakfast program.  Prior to the start of the program, 33% of the children in the study were at nutritional risk, either having low total calorie intake or low intake of micronutrients.   These children had an increased risk of poor attendance, low grades, and behavioral problems. After six months of the free breakfast program, children whose nutritional status improved showed improvements in attendance, grades, behavior, and a decrease in hunger.

This is just one of many studies on the benefits of breakfast. It certainly makes a good argument for getting kids to eat before school, and the benefits of school breakfast programs.

Breakfast and Classroom Behavior

In a review paper, Adolphus described 21 studies that demonstrated a positive effect of habitual breakfast eating on children and adolescents’ academic performance. Ten studies compared test scores to breakfast habits, and found a positive correlation.  For example, adolescents who ate breakfast less than five times a week had lower annual school grades than their breakfast-eating peers. Eating breakfast is also positively correlated with on-task behavior in the classroom.  On task behavior means that children are focused on the activity that they are intended to work on, and are able to complete their tasks appropriately. As in the study by Kleinman described above, undernourished children and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds showed the most improvement in on-task behaviors after beginning to eat breakfast.

Breakfast and School Performance

Kim et al. (2003) explored the association between academic performance and regular meals in nearly 6,500 Korean students.  The study found a strong correlation between meal irregularity and poorer school performance.  This study showed that adolescents who skipped breakfast had more self-reported attention problems than their peers. While it may seem next-to-impossible to fit in a balanced breakfast before school, the research shows that it will pay off throughout the day and eventually on a report card.

Breakfast and Weight Maintenance

In the past two decades, the number of overweight children has doubled, and almost tripled in adolescents.  Obesity carries both psychological and physical health risks, and children and adolescents are particularly sensitive to the stigma against obesity in our society.  Surprisingly, eating breakfast may help to maintain a healthy weight.  One study found that people who eat breakfast on a regular basis are 30% less likely to be overweight or obese than people who don’t.

A study by Deshmukh-Taskar (2010) based on national surveys from 1999-2006 shows that 20% of children and 31% of adolescents skip breakfast on regular basis.  Even those who do eat breakfast don’t seem to have much time, as 36% of children and 25% of adolescents eat ready-to-eat cereal for breakfast.  Breakfast skippers have higher Body Mass Index (BMI) compared to their peers, as well as a higher waist circumference. Children who eat breakfast have better nutrient profiles and fat indexes, while breakfast skippers have lower vitamin intakes, and nutrients that are not compensated by other meals.

Children and adolescents may have the misperception that skipping breakfast will help them to lose weight because they are eating fewer calories. However, the opposite seems to be true. Breakfast may activate metabolism and increase overall activity levels during the day, contributing to lower weight.

Breakfast and Mental Health

Eating breakfast is associated with better mental health in adults and adolescents.  In O’Sulllivan’s 2008 study, 836 boys and girls, aged 13-15 years, kept a three-day food diary and had a Child Behavior Checklist mental health assessment.  Researchers scored the intake of five core food groups at breakfast:

  1. breads and cereals,

  2. vegetables,

  3. fruit,

  4. dairy products, and

  5. meat and meat alternatives.

The study explored the benefits of a varied breakfast that includes foods from many food groups.  In the study only 11% of the teens ate foods from at least three food groups at breakfast. For each additional food group eaten at breakfast, the mental health score on the Child Behavior Checklist improved by 1.66 points. High scores on the checklist may indicate a clinical issue that needs to be addressed, so an “improved score” actually means a lower score. For example, a child who frequently misbehaves at school might begin to behave appropriately, or a child who used to lie now lies less or not at all.

Children who ate breakfast with foods from at least three food groups had an average score that was 4.8 points lower than children who did not eat breakfast at all.  That is a meaningful difference in the mental health of the teens in the study. This study suggests that it is worth paying attention to the variety of the foods consumed at breakfast, and that the more variety the better for mental health.

Breakfast and Mental Distress

In a study of 7305 15-16 year old students in Norway, Lars Liens (2007), evaluated the connection between eating breakfast and mental distress. The study found a link between parental education and the breakfast eating habits of teens.  In families where a parent has an advanced degree, only 10% of teens reported eating breakfast infrequently.  While 38% of students, whose parents have primary education only, skipped breakfast often.  The study found that eating breakfast regularly was correlated with less mental distress overall.

Breakfast for Better Health:

The research shows that:

  • Eating breakfast improves academic performance and school attendance

  • Eating breakfast may help to maintain healthy weight

  • Eating breakfast reduces mental distress

Considering this research, the recommendations for parents and caretakers are to

  • Have children eat breakfast every day

  • Feed them a variety of foods from at least three major food groups at breakfast

  • Implement school meal programs because they help kids have better nutrition and to do better in school behaviorally and academically