We’ve been told for decades that a child who doesn’t start the day with a good breakfast is entering school at a serious disadvantage. The brain needs a good supply of energy to learn optimally. So the standard wisdom goes. Subsidized school breakfast programs have been built around this chestnut. But, is there solid evidence to support the notion that simply adding a morning meal to a child’s schedule will improve his or her school performance? It sounds like common sense, but is it just one of those old grandmother’s nuggets that doesn’t stand up under close scrutiny?
A recent study from Spain suggests that the relationship between breakfast and school performance is not merely related to the nutritional needs of a growing brain. Using data from nearly 4,000 Spanish children aged 4-14 collected in a 2017 national health survey, the investigators found “skipping breakfast and eating breakfast out of the home were linked to greater odds of psychosocial behavioral problems than eating breakfast at home.” And, we already know that, in general, children who misbehave in school don’t thrive academically.
There were also associations between the absence or presence of certain food groups in the morning meal with behavioral problems. But the data lacked the granularity to draw any firm conclusions – although the authors felt that what they consider a healthy Spanish diet may have had a positive influence on behavior.
The findings in this study may simply be another example of the many positive influences that have been associated with family meals and have little to do with what is actually consumed. The association may not have much to do with the family gathering together at a single Norman Rockwell sitting, a reality that I suspect seldom occurs. The apparent positive influence of breakfast may be that it reflects a family’s priorities: that food is important, that sleep is important, and that school is important – so important that scheduling the morning should focus on sending the child off well prepared. The child who is allowed to stay up to an unhealthy hour is likely to be difficult to arouse in the morning for breakfast and getting off to school.
It may be that the child’s behavior problems are so disruptive and taxing for the family that even with their best efforts, the parents can’t find the time and energy to provide a breakfast in the home.
On the other hand, the study doesn’t tell us how many children aren’t offered breakfast at home because their families simply can’t afford it. Obviously, the answer depends on the socioeconomic mix of a given community. In some localities this may represent a sizable percentage of the population.
So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, as I read through the discussion at the end of this paper I felt that the authors were leaning too much toward further research based on the potential associations between behavior and specific food groups their data suggested.
For me, the take-home message from this paper is that our existing efforts to improve academic success with food offered in school should also include strategies that promote eating breakfast at home. For example, the backpack take-home food distribution programs that seem to have been effective could include breakfast-targeted items packaged in a way that encourage families to provide breakfast at home.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at email@example.com.