Oliver, Oliver… never before has a boy asked for more, Oliver… Sorry, I am getting carried away with all the musicals now. The reason for me singing along merrily to classic Oliver is because of a recent study I read concerning breakfast and cognitive ability in children, which got me thinking all about Oliver and the boys asking for more. However, this study suggests that it’s not the boys, but us girls who need to be asking for more breakfast if we want to perform well and optimise our attention and memory capabilities.
Dr Barbara Stewart from the Northern Ireland Centre for Diet and Health at the University of Ulster led the research project, in which pupils were fed a breakfast of toast or beans on toast and then tested on cognitive ability. Results of the study, part-funded by Heinz, were released at the European Nutrition Conference in Rome and show, for the first time, a difference in the sexes with regard to their cognitive power.
As health-conscious individuals, we all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If your body has gone all night with no fuel, then to be at your best in the morning it’s really important to have something to eat, and I am sure that, like me, you have all quoted the ancient and effective nutritional advice to all your clients: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. However, as boys are usually comfortable to eat like a king all day… did any of us know that now the girlies have a valid reason to as well?
The study tested a group of 56 pupils aged between 11 and 16 years over a period of six weeks, with one set fed a breakfast of toast, and the other set a breakfast of beans on toast. They were then asked to answer a series of cognitive questions relating to memory and attention. The link between having breakfast and performance at school is well established but this research suggests girls need a more satisfying breakfast than boys to perform at their best.
The results demonstrated that both types of breakfast improved the time taken to select the correct answer on tests of attention and memory in both sexes, but as the tests became more difficult, respondents who had eaten the beans on toast performed better. It also illustrated that the boys performed better if they were left feeling hungry with an appetite for learning, so to speak, whereas the girls only reached their maximum potential when their hunger had been completely satisfied.
So the research is done and the results are in. Girls do need to eat breakfast. A difficult task for some parents, as most young girls in this generation are already dieting, aspiring to be the next waif-like model or the next Victoria Beckham. Combine this with their group of skinny friends and you have little to no chance of getting baked beans on toast down some throats first thing in the morning. So, as parents, fitness experts and teachers, what can we do to encourage a healthier nutritional outlook and behaviour?
Well, for a start, let’s go back to basics. Although it is difficult for a double-income family, set mealtimes around the table add structure to the diet… the age-old hollering up the stairs of “breakfast’s ready!” certainly signified to me that we were all sitting down, eating breakfast and then going off to school. Also, it is important that you, as a parent, are not on a faddy diet or refusing to eat breakfast because you can’t stomach food in the morning, or you don’t have time etc etc… No excuses – lead by example!
The truth is we should spend time educating youngsters from an early age. We can involve them in discussions about the alphabet; eg, who had breakfast beginning with “A” today? Or encourage a game surrounding breakfast food. Eventually the children who are skipping breakfast will want to join in the morning fun. For the older child, we can start to educate them about their body’s metabolism and how to correctly control their calorie intake through a healthy diet and regular exercise. Again, a difficult task but remember children and teenagers don’t know what is right or wrong, they only aspire to be well-respected and popular people within a group so be a role model and remember: consistency is the key to any success… don’t give up on them!