The adage that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” certainly holds true for school-aged kids.
Research shows that children who regularly eat breakfast have improved concentration and academic performance, increased energy and better moods than kids who skip the morning meal. They’re also more likely to be physically active and have a higher intake of nutrients.
A new study, published Aug. 23 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, suggests that breakfast benefits a child’s social and emotional health, too.
Link between breakfast and psychosocial health
For the study, researchers examined whether breakfast habits were associated with psychosocial behavioural problems in a nationwide sample of 3,772 kids aged 4 to 14 who lived in Spain.
Parents were asked questions about their child’s breakfast habits and psychological health, which included items related to emotional problems, conduct problems, peer problems, hyperactivity and prosocial behaviours (e.g., voluntary actions intended to benefit other people).
The results showed that kids who skipped breakfast or ate breakfast away from home had a greater likelihood of psychosocial behavioural problems compared with those who regularly ate breakfast at home. This study found an association; it did not establish cause and effect.
It’s not known exactly how skipping breakfast – or eating breakfast away at home – might affect psychosocial health. It’s possible that kids who routinely skip breakfast are not able to make up for missing nutrients with the rest of their daily meals, in particular nutrients that influence brain activity such as carbohydrates, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium and iron.
Another possible explanation is that breakfast skippers may compensate for the missed calories by consuming more energy-dense foods later in the day, which could lead to an unhealthy diet. Previous studies have tied a low-quality diet to depression and poorer psychosocial health in children and adolescents.
Eating breakfast at home has also been associated with eating a more nutritious breakfast. As well, eating the meal at home with family provides an opportunity for parents to connect emotionally with children, as well as identify early changes in behavioural patterns.
Back-to-school breakfast tips
A brain-friendly breakfast should include carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grain cereal, whole grain bread, whole fruit, yogurt, milk and plant milks made from soy, oats and rice.
Carbohydrates in foods are transformed into glucose, a sugar the brain uses for energy. Until the age of 16 to 18, a child’s brain burns glucose at a higher rate than an adult brain does.
Glucose is also used to make certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) which regulate mood and cognitive function.
Carbohydrate-rich foods that have a low glycemic index provide a slower and long-lasting release of glucose into the bloodstream. Examples include oatmeal, muesli, high-fibre breakfast cereals, dense whole grain breads, sourdough bread, yogurt, milk, soymilk, berries, apples, bananas and pears.
Add protein to breakfast, too. A high protein breakfast helps stave off hunger before lunch, which helps kids concentrate in class. It also supplies amino acids needed for growing muscles.
Besides eggs, cheese, yogurt (especially Greek and Icelandic yogurts) and milk (dairy, soy or pea), other protein-packed foods to include at breakfast are beans and lentils, smoked salmon and leftover cooked chicken or lean meat.
Healthy fats such as avocado, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter and chia seeds help promote satiety and deliver a range of nutrients needed for brain development and brain function.
Include vegetables at breakfast be it greens in a smoothie, veggies in omelettes and frittatas or grated carrot and zucchini in pancakes and muffins.
Think outside the (cereal) box
Vary your child’s breakfast (and yours) to keep it interesting and to provide a wider range of nutrients.
Try breakfast burritos or tacos made with scrambled eggs or scrambled tofu, black beans, avocado, cheese and whole grain tortillas. Serve breakfast pizza made with whole wheat English muffins, tomato sauce or pesto, cheese and leftover cooked chicken.
Make a batch of overnight oats by soaking one part oats with one to 1.5 parts milk. At breakfast, top with sliced banana and strawberries and sprinkle with shredded coconut and dark chocolate chips.
If your child loves smoothies, try a smoothie bowl. Blend Greek yogurt and frozen fruit for the thick smoothie base. Pour into a bowl and serve with toppings such as cut up fresh fruit, berries, pomegranate seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, nut butter or granola.
For the adventurous, try a savoury plant-based breakfast bowl made with “scrambled chickpeas” or lentils. You’ll find plenty of recipes online.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD
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