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Essential food for young minds

Kids who regularly eat breakfast appear to get the nutrients they need and do better in school.

September 18, 2006|Andreas von Bubnoff | Special to The Times

Whatever their opinion on the importance of breakfast for adults, nutrition researchers and health experts are united on one point: Kids should eat breakfast. Children are still growing, so their need for energy and nutrients is more critical.

"The research overwhelmingly shows that there appear to be many more benefits to eating breakfast than any negative consequences," says Gail Rampersaud, a dietitian at the University of Florida in Gainesville who recently analyzed 47 studies published between 1970 and 2004 on the health effects of breakfast (or skipping it) on children.

Among the findings:

Many studies -- although not all -- suggest that skipping breakfast may have ill effects on the cognitive function of children, especially on their memory.

For example, a study of 180 Spanish children ages 9 to 13 found that those who said they ate an adequate breakfast (meaning more than 20% of the daily energy intake) over the course of one week performed better on a standardized test.

Another study, still unpublished, on 4,000 elementary schoolchildren in the United States, found that breakfast-skipping was associated with poor performance on a test in which children had to remember numbers or list the names of animals. It also found that those who skipped breakfast were more likely to be tardy or absent from school, and in poorer health.

Studies have also reported that the introduction of a school breakfast program led to better math grades, as well as reduced absences and tardiness.

In addition to the effects on children's mind, children who don't get breakfast risk losing out on adequate intake of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, according to about a dozen studies. Breakfast, Rampersaud says, is "an opportunity to get whole grains, fruits and dairy products."

About another dozen studies suggest that children and adolescents who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight. Still, Rampersaud cautions, these studies are preliminary: More carefully designed trials are needed to confirm this observation, she says.

Despite this evidence, even children as young as 4 years old are not always fed breakfast by their parents.

A recent study of 1,500 4-year-olds in the province of Quebec in Canada found that 10% of them didn't get breakfast every day.

In the United States, it's estimated that 8% of children age 6 to 11 skip breakfast, with the number climbing to 25% in 12- to 19-year-olds.

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