Eating a healthful breakfast can boost academic achievement.
Breakfast consumption has been consistently associated with general health outcomes and acute measures of concentration and cognitive function. However, evidence regarding links to concrete educational outcomes has, until now, been unclear.
Previous studies in the UK have shown that 14% of 7-15-year-old children skip breakfast, and 30% eat nothing until lunchtime. Breakfast consumption has also been shown to be socially patterned, putting economically disadvantaged children at greater risk of negative health outcomes.
The current study, led by Hannah Littlecott from Cardiff University's Center for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPher), is thought to be the largest so far looking at longitudinal effects on standardized school performance.
Public health experts at Cardiff University in the UK carried out a study of 5,000 children aged 9-11 from more than 100 elementary schools.
They aimed to examine the link between breakfast consumption and quality and subsequent attainment in assessments 6-18 months later.
Pupils were asked to list all food and drink consumed over a period of just over 24 hours (including two breakfasts), noting what they consumed at specific times throughout the previous day and for breakfast on the day of reporting.
Higher scores for breakfast eaters
The level of educational performance was significantly associated not only with the number of healthy breakfast items consumed, but also with other dietary behaviors, such as the number of sweets, chips and portions of fruit and vegetables eaten throughout the rest of the day.
The chance of gaining an above-average assessment score were up to twice as high for pupils who ate breakfast, compared with those who did not. Eating unhealthy items like sweets and crisps for breakfast, reported by 1 in 5 children, had no positive impact on educational attainment.
The authors say this is strong evidence that what pupils eat affects how well they do in school, with significant implications for education and public health policy.
Fast facts about children's breakfast
- In the US, 8-12% of school age children skip breakfast
- 20-30% of adolescents do not eat breakfast
- Girls and older teens are more likely to go without it.
Regarding breakfast composition, they cite growing evidence that breakfast items with a lower glycemic index, which release energy steadily throughout the morning, may have a positive effect on cognitive functioning, health, school attendance and academic outcomes.
The team urges schools to dedicate time and resources to improving child health, citing a "clear synergy between health and education," and suggesting that embedding health improvements into the core of schooling could lead to educational improvements.
Prof. Chris Bonell, from the UK's University College London Institute of Education, says that schools should be focusing on the health and education of their pupils as complementary rather than competing priorities.
In the UK, many schools offer pupils a free breakfast, which Prof. Bonell calls an important tool for boosting the educational performance of young people, since "investing resources in effective interventions to improve young people's health is also likely to improve their educational performance."
Coauthor Dr. Graham Moore comments:
"Linking our data to real world educational performance data has allowed us to provide robust evidence of a link between eating breakfast and doing well at school. There is therefore good reason to believe that where schools are able to find ways of encouraging those young people who don't eat breakfast at home to eat a school breakfast, they will reap significant educational benefits."
Dr. Julie Bishop, director of Health Improvement at Public Health Wales, says the research will support schools considering measures to improve their pupil's diet, bringing benefit not just to their immediate health but also their achievement.
The authors suggest future research into how breakfast consumption and other health behaviors improve academic outcomes, and similar studies among older children, as research has shown that breakfast consumption declines after elementary school.
Medical News Today has previously reported that eating breakfast reduces cravings and overeating.