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How Breakfast Choices Affect Learning


Research shows that children who eat breakfast do better in school. But one study found that eating whole grain foods with higher fiber and protein content, such as oatmeal, could enhance childrens learning even more. Included: Breakfast suggestions for students.

Dr. Holly A. Taylor

While research has shown that ch9dren who eat breakfast do better in school, one study suggests that what they eat for breakfast can have an effect on learning as well.

The study, "Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children," was published in the journal Physiology & Behavior (85(5), 635-645) in 2005. The findings indicated that children who ate oatmeal for breakfast did better on certain tasks, such as those involving memory (verbal and spatial), attention (visual and auditory), and visual perception than children who ate certain cold cereals or no breakfast.

The reason for that is oatmeal has a higher fiber and protein content, takes longer to digest, and raises the blood glucose level more slowly than some other foods, so it may provide "a slower, more sustained energy source" that leads to enhanced cognition, the study noted. Glucose is a type of sugar that is the main source of fuel for cells. The body breaks down most carbohydrates from the foods and converts them to glucose.

The research on nutritional effects on cognition was collaboration among Dr. Holly A. Taylor, Dr. Robin Kanarek, both professors of psychology at Tufts University; and Dr. Caroline R. Mahoney, formerly a graduate student at Tufts and now a researcher at the Army Research Center in Natick, MA.

One of the study's authors, Dr. Taylor, spoke with Education World about the study's findings. Dr. Taylor's primary area of research focuses on how people think and use information, such as what they understand when they read and how they learn to navigate through their environment.

Education World: Can you describe your study? How many children were involved, what ages, and over how many days was the study conducted?

Dr. Holly A. Taylor: This research was primarily conducted by Caroline Mahoney, Ph.D., as her dissertation research. It was supervised by myself, and Robin Kanarek, Ph.D. The study examined whether breakfast content affected cognitive processes critical to school success, including memory (verbal and spatial), attention (visual and auditory), and visual perception.

The studies compared three different breakfasts: instant oatmeal, ready-to-eat cereal, and no breakfast. Each child received each breakfast over the course of the study. We conducted two studies, which were nearly identical, except for the children's age. The first study used 30 children, 15 boys and 15 girls, ages 9 to 11, mostly in fourth grade. The second study also used 30 children, 15 boys and 15 girls, ages 6 to 8, mostly in second grade. Children participated in the study one day a week for four weeks.

Parents and guardians were asked to send their child to school on the child's designated day without having eaten breakfast. After attendance was taken in their classrooms, the children reported to the cafeteria for breakfast and after eating went back to class for an hour. They then came to a designated room to complete the cognitive tasks.

"Other studies have shown that eating breakfast improves school performance, but these studies had not examined whether the qualities of the breakfast matter."

The results supported previous work showing the benefits of eating breakfast and expanded this by showing that on some tasks, particularly those involving spatial memory, short-term memory, and auditory attention, children who ate the oatmeal did better. The results also suggested that breakfast composition may have more of an influence on younger children, perhaps due to higher metabolism rates.

EW: Who funded the study?

Dr. Taylor: Quaker Oats provided funding for the study. We accepted funding with the proviso that the results could be published regardless of whether they were favorable with respect to oatmeal.

EW: Why were you interested in this area of study?

Dr. Taylor: It is clear that food influences brain activity. The brain's primary fuel is glucose, but the body does not store glucose in large quantities. It must be replenished through food. Other studies have shown that eating breakfast improves school performance, but these studies had not examined whether the qualities of the breakfast matter. Whole grains, such as oatmeal, should release glucose more slowly than processed foods. We wanted to see whether this slower release would affect children's attention, memory, and perception. Anecdotally, as a mother of young children, the food/behavior connection is ever apparent.

EW: What surprised you most about the study results?

Dr. Taylor: The most surprising result came from the diet and opinion questionnaire we included in the study. Results of this questionnaire indicated that only slightly more than 50 percent of the children, aged 6-11, regularly ate breakfast before school. The remainder either never ate breakfast or did so irregularly.

EW: How can schools apply the findings from your study?

Dr. Taylor: Schools could apply these findings by working toward educating parents and guardians about the importance of breakfast as it relates to school performance. Additionally, school breakfast programs could be evaluated and/or enhanced with findings such as this work in mind.

EW: What would you say is the ideal breakfast for a youngster in the age group you studied?

Dr. Taylor: First, some breakfast is better than none. This is important given that the results of the diet and opinion questionnaire indicated that many children did not regularly eat breakfast. Ideally, for elementary-aged children, (and for all of us) breakfast should be balanced and contain whole-grain carbohydrates and protein.

EW: Have you, or are you considering, studying the effects of breakfast foods on other types of learning tasks, besides taking tests?

Dr. Taylor: This research actually examined cognitive processes that are fundamental to learning, such as memory, attention, and perception. So the study was not specific to test taking. We are considering extending this research by examining whether the same breakfast effects can be seen a longer period after breakfast consumption.


This e-interview with Dr. Holly Taylor is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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