By Derek Pugh
We live in enlightened times. Nutritionists and neuroscientists tell us how the brain obtains and uses the chemicals it needs for healthy function and the overwhelming importance of breakfast. Is their message getting through? When I ask school groups about their breakfast habits many kids say they skip breakfast with excuses like they don’t feel like it because they get up late for school, it’s too hot or too cold, or they wrongly think it’s a good way to stay thin. A high number of teachers also say they miss their breakfast. So clearly the breakfast message needs to be explicitly taught and promoted by schools.
We are breaking a period without eating – a fast, at breakfast time. Breakfast provides us with the fuel for the upcoming day and our brains need this fuel for clear thinking and learning. Without it you are relying on yesterday’s leftovers, or breaking down body reserves. Not that brains are expensive to run as they use 20% of the daily energy consumed.
As evidence for the value of breakfast is high some schools provide breakfast for their students and run nutrition education programs. These programs pay dividends in terms of both student behaviour and attainment. I use the following guiding principles with students. We begin with a challenge: Are you a ‘Breakfast Winners or Loser?’
The following points are based on recent research findings, but I always like to say that there’s little here our grandmothers didn’t know:
o Breakfast winners have nutritious breakfasts and they are better students because they concentrate better and can manage more complex tasks.
o Breakfast losers often get lower grades because they skip breakfast or eat lots of sugar or the wrong type of fats.
o Breakfast winners can make it to lunch time comfortably and are more likely to eat a nutritious lunch and less likely to overeat. Breakfast losers have an empty belly and are likely to crave junk food during the morning and they are often overweight and sluggish.
o Breakfast winners eat complex carbohydrates and proteins in roughly equal amounts in terms of energy. (Carbohydrates alone can make you drowsy).
o Breakfast winners often have high calcium levels in their breakfasts (eg through dairy products) and show better behaviour and learning.
o Breakfast winners may be calmed by the process of eating a good breakfast, thereby lowering cortisol and other stress hormones and therefore often have a better attitude towards schooling.
o Breakfast winners also get fibre, water and other important nutrients through their breakfasts and they are likely to have lower cholesterol levels and fewer days off school sick.
What you can do?
Some teachers and students may need to rethink their diet a little and information like this needs explicit teaching in the school’s health program. Nutritionists recommend we have a breakfast that includes a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fibre. The carbohydrates kick off the day giving you an immediate energy boost and the protein starts to provide energy when the carbs are used up. Fibre fills you up and stops you overeating and helps you avoid constipation. You will hear the term ‘glycemic index’ of GI. Food can have a low GI or a high GI, but low is better. GI refers to the relative length of time it takes for food to be burned up by your body and the longer it takes the better as you’ll have less need to snack between meals. Teachers may know what a ‘sugar hit’ feels like and most have probably seen the effect in children – it doesn’t give energy for long.
Low GI carbohydrates come best from whole-grain cereals and breads, brown rice, fruits and vegetables. Hi GI carbohydrates we don’t want come from processed sugar you find in food like doughnuts - these provide no more nutrition than a candy bar and should be rarely eaten. Protein best comes from low-fat dairy products, lean meats, eggs, nuts, seeds, and cooked dried beans. Fibre comes from whole-grain bread and cereals; brown rice, bran, and other grains; fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts.
Remember your brain need relatively more energy than the rest of your body. If you are feeling hungry or craving food it’s your brain telling you it’s in need. Listen to it, but don’t let it fool you into eating junk food. Poor food choices are wasted opportunities for good nutrition.