Breakfast science. “Breakfast” means just that: break the overnight fast. Eating breakfast allows you to restock the energy stores that have been depleted overnight and begin the day with a tank full of the right fuel. Sending yourself to work or your child to school without breakfast is like trying to use a cordless power tool without ever recharging the battery. If you don’t refuel your child’s body in the morning after an overnight fast, the child has to draw fuel from its own energy stores until lunchtime. The stress hormones necessary to mobilize these energy reserves may leave the child feeling irritable, tired, and unable to learn or behave well. If you want your child to rise and shine rather than limp along sluggishly at school all morning, make sure your child’s day gets off to a nutritious start.
Throughout the brain, biochemical messengers called neurotransmitters help the brain make the right connections. Food influences how these neurotransmitters operate. The more balanced the breakfast, the more balanced the brain function. There are two types of proteins that affect neurotransmitters: 1) neurostimulants, such as proteins containing tyrosine, affecting the alertness transmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, and 2) calming proteins that contain tryptophan, which relaxes the brain. A breakfast with the right balance of both stimulating and calming foods starts the child off with a brain that is primed to learn and emotions prepared to behave. Eating complex carbohydrates along with proteins helps to usher the amino acids from these proteins into the brain, so that the neurotransmitters can work better.
Complex carbohydrates and proteins act like biochemical partners for enhancing learning and behavior. This biochemical principle is called “synergy,” meaning that the combination of two nutrients works better than each one singly, sort of like 1 + 1 = 3.
Breakfast research. If your hectic household has a morning rush hour like the one in our home, you may feel that you don’t have time for a healthy breakfast. But consider what studies have shown:
- Breakfast eaters are likely to achieve higher grades, pay closer attention, participate more in class discussions, and manage more complex academic problems than breakfast skippers.
- Breakfast skippers are more likely to be inattentive, sluggish, and make lower grades.
- Breakfast skippers are more likely to show erratic eating patterns throughout the day, eat less nutritious foods, and give into junk-food cravings. They may crave a mid- morning sugar fix because they can’t make it all the way to lunchtime on an empty fuel tank.
- Some children are more vulnerable to the effects of missing breakfast than others. The effects on behavior and learning as a result of missing breakfast or eating a breakfast that is not very nutritious vary from child to child.
- Whether or not children eat breakfast affects their learning, but so does what they eat. Children who eat a breakfast containing both complex carbohydrates and proteins in equivalent amounts of calories tend to show better learning and performance than children who eat primarily a high protein or a high carbohydrate breakfast. Breakfasts high in carbohydrates with little protein seem to sedate children rather than stimulate their brain to learn.
- Children eating high calcium foods for breakfast (e.g., dairy products) showed enhanced behavior and learning.
- Morning stress increases the levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream. This can affect behavior and learning in two ways. First, stress hormones themselves can bother the brain. Secondly, stress hormones such as cortisol increase carbohydrate craving throughout the day. The food choices that result may affect behavior and learning in children who are sensitive to the ups and downs of blood sugar levels. Try to send your child off to school with a calm attitude, as well as a good breakfast.
- Breakfast sets the pattern for nutritious eating throughout the rest of the day. When children miss breakfast to save time or to cut calories, they set themselves up for erratic binging and possibly overeating the rest of the day.