Rise, Shine, and Eat: Why Breakfast Boosts Your Child's Brain Power

I have three children under the age of 5. I am also a working mother, with a working husband, so mornings can get a little hairy in my house. Between getting dressed, getting bags packed, and appointments remembered, there is one thing that I make sure we all have - a good breakfast.

ImageMost mornings breakfast is a necessity because the kids wake up hungry and ready to eat, but there are other compelling reasons to serve a nutritious morning meal: Studies indicate that kids who eat regular breakfasts have fewer vitamin deficiencies and lower levels of chronic illness, as well as healthier body weights and a greater chance of meeting nutritional guidelines. The good news doesn’t stop there! Regular breakfast consumers also tend to have better school attendance records and higher test scores.

Why is breakfast so powerful? Follow your gut.

Several gut hormones, released after eating, are known to directly influence learning. Leptin, a hormone which regulates energy intake by signaling the brain to reduce food consumption, has receptors throughout the brain including hippocampus (a part of the brain that plays an important role in both short and long-term memory as well as spatial navigation), where it has been shown to facilitate synaptic plasticity, the ability of connections between brain cells to strengthen in response to use. Similarly, Ghrelin, another gut hormone, has also been shown to lead to reorganization of neuronal connections in the hippocampal region by promoting synapses, a process which is paralleled by enhanced spatial learning and memory formation.

What does all this mean? It means that as my kids eat their first spoonful of cereal or bite into a piece of fruit, gut hormones begin priming their brains for acquiring and storing new memories. And that’s not all. The food itself contains nutrients that boost brain power. Here are a few to consider:

  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: Comprised of three fats, ALA (found in plant oils), EPA, and DHA (found mainly in marine oils, like fish oil), omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function. Deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in humans has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders and at least one study has shown that dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids in children who were not “fulfilling their potential at school” had some level of improvement in academic performance. Common sources of animal omega–3 EPA and DHA fatty acids include fish oils and ALA can be found some plant oils, such as flaxseed oil.
  • Flavonols: Found in various fruits including blueberries and cranberries, flavonols are potent antioxidants and supplementation has been shown to improve learning and memory in rats. This line of research has not been explored in humans yet, but other research clearly shows beneficial effect for the heart.
  • Folate: The synthetic version of folate is the main ingredient in prenatal vitamins for a reason. Deficiency is known to lead to neurological malformation (during development) as well as neurological disorder in adulthood. Folate is essential for normal brain function.

The ideal morning meal.

It is hard to pin down the perfect breakfast because studies examining the link between breakfast consumption and academic performance or cognition have different designs or ways of measuring key elements, like the timing and composition of breakfast. Breakfast, as it turns out, is both an art and a science. But there are a few things we DO know:

  1. Eat Breakfast. Eating breakfast is better than not eating breakfast, so don’t worry as much about what you feed your kids (and yourself!), but rather focus on feeding them. Period.
  2. Include protein. Protein is digested more slowly in the body than carbohydrates, so providing protein will help your kids feel fuller, longer.
  3. Diversity is good. Ideally, the morning meal would contain carbohydrates, protein, and fat. They provide different forms of energy and will fuel your kids further into the morning.
  4. Go with whole grains. Whole grains are digested more slowly than refined grains, and have the added benefits of being an important source of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Look for the words “whole grain [name of grain]”, “whole wheat”, or “100% whole grain/wheat” on the label or ingredient list. Be wary of front of package labels and claims. These are not regulated and may be deceiving. (For example, a package may say “contains 100% wheat” but not contain whole grains.)
  5. Explore new oils. Favoring poly or monounsaturated fats (fats which are liquid at room temperature) such as olive oil, safflower oil, and peanut oil is better for your health. These fats have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and decrease your risk for heart disease. Saturated fats, which come primarily from animal products, are associated with increased cholesterol levels.
  6. Avoid trans-fats and partially hydrogenated oil. Due to federal regulations in nutrition labeling, a food may contain partially hydrogenated oil and still list zero grams of trans fats on the package.
  7. Skimp on the size, not on the fruit - go 100%. Kids don’t need to drink fruit juice, but it won’t necessarily hurt them. The science is mixed on whether or not fruit juice consumption is adversely associated with health. If you do offer juice, make sure it is 100% fruit juice and that you offer 4 oz (1/2 a cup) or less.
  8. Take time together. Regardless of what you serve, or how much your kids eat for breakfast, take a few minutes to sit with them in the morning. Sharing even a few a moments together over a meal has been shown to promote all kinds of health benefits that last well beyond the day, extending even into adulthood.

Just because you know the importance of eating breakfast, doesn't mean that it is easy to get it on the table. These time saving tips for a healthy breakfast are a good place to start. Enjoy your breakfast,

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Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech.
Department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise

** We are excited to welcome Kiyah to Mind Positive Parenting as a guest blogger. We love her and we think you will too. Learn more about Kiyah, her family, and her work:

Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise at Virginia Tech. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three children (ages 4 and under). In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of almost two dozen scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.