The old phrase “breakfast of champions” may be more than just a phrase. What you feed your child in the morning can have a significant effect on their performance throughout the rest of the day. Yet many parents are feeding their kids all the wrong things.
Most American breakfasts are high in empty carbs yet lacking in fat or protein. This is partly a consequence of misinformed food guidelines issued in the latter part of the 21st century. Because carbs have fewer calories per gram than fat or protein, carbs were heavily featured in American diet recommendations, the thinking being that fewer calories and fat is always better. But while carbs may contain fewer calories per gram, they are inferior in many other ways, lacking in substance and delivering undesirable effects in terms of metabolism, nutrition and hunger.
The Food Pyramid recommends things like a “whole-grain bagel with fat-free cream cheese and a glass of 100% juice” for breakfast. While these things sound healthy, this “wholesome” breakfast consists entirely of highly processed, quickly digesting carbs that provide an initial energy boost but then quickly wear off, leaving a child sluggish, their brain suffering a metabolic energy crisis.
When researchers gave college students either slow-digesting or faster-digesting carbohydrate-based breakfasts, they found that those fed the quick-digesting meals showed impaired working memory and attention problems later in the morning, peaking with a 33% decline several hours after the meal. Those fed protein-rich breakfasts or slower-digesting steel-cut oats didn’t exhibit this dramatic crash. *1
Such cognitive declines in children could lead to any number of problematic outcomes: It could make them moody or irritable, cause them to struggle in school, or make it more difficult to focus and concentrate. A 33% decline can mean the difference between a normal child and one who receives a diagnosis of ADHD, or one who thrives in school versus one who’s labeled learning impaired.
To ensure your child is functioning at full capacity, parents should try to achieve a better balance in their child’s breakfast. Cut back on some of the carbs, substituting these with more fiber- and protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs, whole nuts, milk, whole fruit, and so forth. This will provide a more even and steady supply of energy throughout the morning.
1. Benton, D. et al. (2003) “The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans,” Psychopharmacology, 66(1):86-90