In North America, breakfast is the most personal of all the traditional daily meals and usually the one at which people show the least amount of day-to-day variation.
For example, since retiring from active practice I eat three scrambled eggs and bowl of fresh fruit every morning (yes, I have my lipid screen done annually and it’s fine). When I was a child there were stretches measuring in years during which I would eat the same cold cereal and drink a glass of orange juice. As an adolescent trying to bulk up for football, there was a breakfast-in-a-glass that I drank along with the cereal every morning. There was the frozen waffle decade.
When I was a busy general pediatrician, the meals were short on preparation and equally short on variety. But I always had something to eat before heading out for the day. That’s what my folks did, and that’s the pattern my wife and I programmed into our children. I think my dietary history is not unique. Most people don’t have time for a complex breakfast, and in many cases, they aren’t feeling terribly adventuresome when it comes to food at 6 or 7 in the morning. Breakfast is more of a habit than an event to satisfy one’s hunger. Several generations ago, breakfast was a big deal. Men (and occasionally women) were headed out for a day of demanding physical labor and stoking the furnace at the beginning of the day made sense. In farm families, breakfast was a major meal after the morning chores were completed. Those Norman Rockwellesque days are behind us, and breakfast has receded into a minor nutritional role.
For many adults, it’s just something to chew on with a cup of a stimulant liquid. In some families, breakfast has disappeared completely. For as long as there have been dietitians and nutritionists, we have been told that breakfast can be the most important meal of the day. And for a child, the failure to eat breakfast could jeopardize his or her ability to perform in school. I guess at face value this dictum makes sense, but I’ve never been terribly impressed with the evidence supporting it. A recent study from England has gotten me thinking about the whole issue of breakfast and school performance again (“associations between habitual school-day breakfast consumption frequency and academic performance in British adolescents.” Front Public Health. 2019 Nov 20.). A trio of researchers at the Human Appetite Research Unit of the School of Psychology, University of Leeds (England), found that in the study group of nearly 300 adolescents aged 16-18 years, the students who frequently skipped breakfast performed more poorly on a battery of standardized national tests. Well, I guess we have to chalk another one up for the dietitians and nutritionists. But let’s think this through again. The authors observe in the discussion of their results that “breakfast quality was not considered in the analysis and therefore conclusions regarding what aspects of breakfast are correlated with academic performance cannot be drawn.”
Could it be that families who don’t give breakfast a priority also don’t prioritize school work? Maybe teenagers with poor sleep hygiene who are habitually difficult to awaken in the morning don’t have time to eat breakfast. It is likely their sleep deprivation is more of a factor in their school performance than the small nutritional deficit that they have incurred by not eating breakfast. The study that might answer these questions hasn’t been done yet. And maybe it doesn’t need to be done. We don’t need to be asking children what they have for breakfast. But we should be entering into a dialogue that begins with “Why don’t you have breakfast?” The answers may lead into a productive discussion with the family about more important contributors to poor school performance.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at.