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The impact of breakfast on learning in children

04 October 2019

Dr Katie Adolphus, Dr Clare Lawton and Professor Louise Dye from the Human Appetite Research Unit at the University of Leeds, School of Psychology, have been researching the importance of a healthy breakfast for school children. Their findings and conclusions below reassure the need and importance of our National School Breakfast Programme‘s work.

Breakfast: Fuel for the brain

Numerous scientific studies have investigated the effect of breakfast consumption on learning in children and adolescents. Children and adolescents have received particular research attention for a number of reasons. Firstly, children and adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to the nutritional effects of skipping breakfast skipping on brain activity. Glucose is the preferred energy source for the brain, which requires glucose for its energy needs. The human brain represents only 2% of body weight but accounts for 25% of the total body glucose consumption, which is more than any other organ in the body. Moreover, children have an even higher brain glucose consumption compared with adults. Studies indicate that the cerebral metabolic rate of glucose utilisation is approximately twice as high in children aged 4-10 years than adults [1].

The brain’s capacity to store glucose (as glycogen) is limited. Furthermore, children and adolescents are subject to a longer overnight fasting period due to higher sleep demands, which can deplete glycogen stores overnight. Therefore, breakfast consumption is vital in providing adequate energy for the brain for the school morning. 

Does eating breakfast help children learn at school?

In order to answer this question, our research group carried out three systematic reviews on the effects of breakfast on learning in children and adolescents [2-4]. In these reviews, we examined and summarised all of the scientific studies on the effect of breakfast on cognitive function, academic performance, and in-class behaviour in children and adolescents. 

“The positive effects of breakfast consumption on cognitive function also tended to be stronger in children who were undernourished.”

Cognitive function

In 2009, our research group conducted the first systematic review of all of the evidence examining the effect of breakfast on cognitive function measured using objective cognitive tests of attention, memory, reaction time, and executive function. We found that there was consistent evidence that breakfast consumption compared with skipping breakfast had a short-term (same morning) positive effect on cognitive function 4-hours after consumption. The most consistent support for the benefit of breakfast was for attention, memory, and executive function. The positive effects of breakfast consumption on cognitive function also tended to be stronger in children who were undernourished. We updated this review in 2016 to capture any new studies that had been published since 2009. The findings were consistent with our previous review but were supported by more evidence. 

Academic performance

We have also examined the effect of breakfast on academic performance (such as school grades or achievement tests) and in-class behaviour by conducting the first systematic review of all of the scientific studies in this field. 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 school grades and achievement test scores 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.  In this review, we also found a positive effect of breakfast on on-task behaviour in the classroom.

To follow this review, we conducted the first study to examine the relationship between habitual school-day breakfast consumption and GCSE attainment. GCSE attainment was assessed by three composite measures using the Department for Education point score system and by grades achieved in Maths and English. We found that school-day breakfast consumption was positively associated with overall GCSE performance, after controlling for covariates. Interesting, we found that school-day breakfast skipping was significantly associated with poorer Maths attainment in adolescents from lower socio-economic status backgrounds. 

In conclusion

Breakfast consumption in children has been found to:

  • Improve cognitive function, particularly memory, attention, and executive function
  • Improve academic performance, including school grades and achievement test scores
  • Increase on-task behaviour in the class

If this study has inspired you to want to find out more about what we do to support children, in their learning by providing school breakfasts to thousands of children visit our National School Breakfast Programme page here. To watch the video about the studies watch the video below.

To read the original reviews:

Read 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 article here.

Read 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 article here.

Read Hoyland, A., L. Dye, and C.L. Lawton, A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutrition Research Reviews, 2009. 22(02): p. 220-243 article here.

References

[1] Chugani, H.T., A critical period of brain development: Studies of cerebral glucose utilisation with PET. Preventive Medicine, 1998. 27(2): p. 184-188.

[2] Adolphus, K., et al., The Effects of Breakfast and Breakfast Composition on Cognition in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 2016. 7(3).

[3] Adolphus, K., C.L. Lawton, and L. Dye, The effects of breakfast on behaviour and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013. 7.

[4] Hoyland, A., L. Dye, and C.L. Lawton, A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutrition Research Reviews, 2009. 22(02): p. 220-243.