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29 Jun 2016

Does eating breakfast help children learn at school? In order to answer this question, we recently carried out two systematic reviews on the effects of breakfast on cognitive function and academic performance in children and adolescents (Adolphus et al., 2016; 2013).

Cognitive function

A good deal of research has examined the effect of breakfast on cognitive function by using objective cognitive tests of attention, memory, reaction time, and executive function.  Our systematic review on the effects of breakfast on cognitive function included a total of 45 intervention studies. Most of the included studies considered the acute effect of a single breakfast meal where performance was assessed within 4 hours post-ingestion. These acute studies employed breakfast vs. no breakfast comparisons or comparisons of breakfast type. Some of the included studies examined the effect of chronic breakfast interventions on cognitive function. There was relatively consistent evidence that breakfast consumption relative to fasting has a short-term (same morning) positive, domain specific, effect on cognitive function. The most consistent support was for attention, memory, and executive function. Moreover, the degree of improvement varied according to the nutritional status of the child, as well as the timing and difficultly of the cognitive task employed. Interestingly, many studies suggested that breakfast consumption lessens the decline in cognitive function across the morning observed following breakfast omission, rather than enhancing performance to above baseline levels. However, we were unable to make conclusions about which type of breakfast is best for cognitive function and the effects of chronic breakfast interventions because there were few studies that reported conflicting results.

Academic performance

There is a smaller body of evidence that has examined the effect of breakfast on academic performance outcomes, such as school grades or achievement tests. Our systematic review on the effects of breakfast on academic performance included a total of 22 studies. These were either observational studies examining the association between children’s and adolescents’ usual breakfast eating patterns and academic performance or intervention studies examining the chronic effect of school breakfast programs on academic performance. The findings demonstrated that habitual breakfast consumption frequency is positively related to academic performance, such that those children that eat breakfast more regularly have better academic performance after controlling for confounders such as socio-economic status (SES). Most support was found for improvements to Mathematics and arithmetic attainment. Moreover, the effects appear to be pervasive irrespective of socio-demographic characteristics such as gender, age, and SES.  There was also some support for a positive effect of chronic SBP interventions on academic performance, but the included studies were generally poor quality with a lack of evidence from randomised controlled trials.

Bottom line

Eating breakfast may help children and adolescent learn at school. Considering that around 1 in 7 UK school children skip breakfast (Hoyland et al. 2012), our findings indicate the importance of promoting regular breakfast consumption in children and adolescents as part of a strategy to improve learning at school.

To read the original reviews:

Adolphus, K., Lawton, C. L., Champ, C .L., & Dye, L. (2016). The effects of breakfast and breakfast composition on cognition in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Advances in Nutrition.

Adolphus, K., Lawton, C. L., & Dye, L. (2013). The effects of breakfast on behaviour and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7 doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00425.

Dr Katie Adolphus, Research Fellow, Centre for Social Care and Health Related Research, Birmingham City University will be speaking in the nutrition for cognitive health seminar programme on 24 November 2016 at Food Matters Live.



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