Breakfast choice affects learning for rest of the day

Special to The Times

Want to give your children a head start in school this year? If you normally serve them cold cereal for breakfast, instead consider serving them oatmeal.

Numerous studies already link the first meal of the day to better classroom performance. But recent findings suggest that what children eat at breakfast may also shape how well they learn and the knowledge they retain.

In the August edition of the journal Physiology and Behavior, Tufts University psychologists report on two experiments they conducted on 60 schoolchildren.


For breakfast one day, the researchers served the youngsters Quaker oatmeal made with milk and then gave them a battery of classroom tests. A week later, the students ate Cap’n Crunch cereal with milk and then were tested. During a third week, they skipped breakfast and only took the tests.

Simply eating breakfast produced better test results than missing the morning meal -- findings that echo results of numerous other studies. But the researchers also discovered that boys and girls performed better on tests when they ate oatmeal than when they had Cap’n Crunch. (The research was funded by Quaker Oats, maker of both products used in the study.)

After eating a bowl of oatmeal, boys and girls ages 9 to 11 showed enhanced spatial memory, a skill that helps with drawing and doing puzzles. Spatial memory can help not only with art, but also with geography as well as some technical skills used in math and science. Girls, but not boys, also displayed improved short-term memory after eating oatmeal.

Children ages 6 to 8 listened better after eating oatmeal than after a breakfast of Cap’n Crunch. And, like their older counterparts, they also scored higher on spatial memory. Younger girls also showed improvements in short-term memory similar to that seen in their older counterparts.

So what gives oatmeal its punch? The researchers suggest that the mixture of protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates may account for the differences in test performance. “Oatmeal may provide a slower and more sustained energy source and consequently result in cognitive enhancement compared to low-fiber, high-glycemic, ready-to-eat cereal,” the team concluded, noting that the results suggest “the importance of what children consume for breakfast before school.”

The findings “reinforce the recent move toward whole grains,” said Holly A. Taylor, professor of psychology at Tufts University and a coauthor of the study. “Since the brain uses glucose, and the source of glucose is diet, having a sustained-release food for breakfast is going to have beneficial effects on memory and attention.”

Here are other benefits and tips for eating a healthy breakfast:

* Not just for the young. A University of Toronto study of 22 healthy men and women, ages 61 to 79, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2001 found that breakfast improved memory. And researchers at the University of Wales, Swansea, have reported that adults who ate a breakfast of low-glycemic foods such as whole-grain unsweetened cereal, bread or eggs performed better on memory tests in the morning than they did after eating sugary, high-glycemic fare such as sweetened cereals or doughnuts.

* Think outside the cereal box. Cheese, whole-grain crackers and fruit provide a good breakfast. So do smoothies made with nonfat yogurt and fruit. Or slather peanut butter on a slice of whole-grain bread, top with banana slices and drink a glass of skim milk or low-fat soy milk for a nutritionally complete breakfast.

* Eat breakfast to keep your waistline whittled. Breakfast doesn’t necessarily help with weight loss, but it appears to be important for long-term weight maintenance. Successful losers -- members of the National Weight Control Registry -- report that breakfast is a meal they rarely miss. (The registry has several thousand registrants, who, on the average, have lost about 60 pounds and kept it off for roughly five years.) Researchers say eating breakfast may help control appetite for the day.

Eating breakfast has helped Arlene Rimer of Toronto maintain a 150-pound weight loss. Now she’s hoping that her example will rub off on her children. She wrote in an e-mail recently: “I am trying to teach my children to take the few minutes to eat a healthy breakfast at home before they leave for school.”