Study links breakfast to student achievement

Study links breakfast to student achievement

It’s often said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and according to new research, this is certainly true when it comes to helping young people do well at school. Conversely, a poor diet has been shown to do the opposite, and if recent research is anything to go by, this is a worry.

Just 4.3% of Australian children and adolescents aged 2-17 years meet the Australian Dietary Guideline (ADG) recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake. A new study, funded by the Australian Research Council and The Future Project at The King’s School, found that eating an unhealthy breakfast has a similar detrimental effect on motivation and achievement as eating no breakfast at all.

The findings, published in the Journal of School Psychology, also found that young people who eat a healthy breakfast can lead to higher levels of motivation and achievement.

“Many students make less-than-ideal breakfast choices at the start of the school day or skip breakfast altogether,” Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, lead author of the study and an educational psychologist from the School of Education at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, said.

“Our findings highlight that eating a healthy breakfast each and every morning improves student motivation and academic achievement.”

An early intervention strategy for teachers

The extent to which a regular healthy breakfast impacts student motivation and achievement has implications for educational policy and practice, Professor Martin said.

“Having a healthy breakfast is somewhat within a student’s immediate control and could potentially be addressed either at school or home through better health education and communication,” Professor Martin said.

Schools and the school system can better support students by offering a healthy breakfast option at school, including information about healthy breakfast in the curriculum, and communicating with parents at home about healthy breakfast ideas and strategies.

“It is possible to incorporate a healthy breakfast or morning snack into the school day,” Professor Martin said.

“School-based breakfast programs are one avenue for this, or schools might consider providing students with a mid-morning snack, especially for students from disadvantaged or food-insecure homes.”

However, there may be other barriers that schools need to keep in mind. For example, some students may decline a free breakfast if it is stigmatised and seen as for “poor kids”, while others may have body image worries or cultural and dietary needs.

“If we can manage these considerations, starting each day with a healthy breakfast could be a relatively achievable change in a student’s life that has a notable positive impact on their educational outcomes.

‘Nutrition should be a priority in all Australian schools’

Another expert who has been working to help schools and communities improve the health and wellbeing of young people is Dr Catharine Fleming, a Lecturer in Public Health in the Western Sydney University’s School of Science and Health.

Most recently as an Early Career Researcher in the Translation Health Research Institute, Dr Fleming is working collaboratively across Western Sydney University with expert researchers in infant feeding, early childhood development and disordered eating focused clinical psychology to build a body of work focusing on protecting children against lifelong chronic disease through investigating different aspects of early infant and young child feeding in the first 2000 days of life.

She says early years intervention is crucial as dietary behaviours established early in life will continue into adulthood, but intervention for school age children is just as critical to maintain optimal dietary behaviours for growth throughout adolescence.

“Despite this, data from the ABS illustrates that optimal fruit and vegetable consumption drops to only 1.5% in 4–8-year-olds and 2.9% in adolescents 14–17 years compared to younger children aged 2–3 years where 20.1% met recommendations,” Fleming told The Educator.

“With children consuming 30% of their daily energy at school and the continued decline in fruit and vegetable intake in school age children, it is clear what an important issue nutrition is for the health and welling of children and needs to be a priority at school.”

The children surveyed in Dr Fleming’s study said they were provided with inconsistent nutrition information at school – especially around nutrients required for growth such as iron – and that they sourced most nutrition information from peers or social media.

“Young people also frequently discussed not eating at school as they did lot like the food provided in the canteen which had limited healthy options,” she said.

“So, talking with young people can provide an opportunity for them to have a voice around what are their direct concerns for food and nutrition at school.”

Through asking and partnering with school children, teachers can enable young people to have agency around improving both nutrition education in the classroom and school canteen options, Dr Fleming said.

“Ultimately, giving young people a greater sense of agency can lead to a sustained and positive change in their behaviour.”