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How breakfast can boost behaviour

Breakfast can boost good behaviour

Around 20% of children regularly skip breakfast, which is considered the most important meal of the day. Skipping breakfast is commonly considered to have detrimental effects on memory and learning (1), but it has also been found that the type of breakfast can have effects on mood, behaviour and learning. A study in 2012 found that 1,386 children who had breakfast outperformed students who had not on memory and attention tests (2). Despite the majority of children consuming breakfast, it has been found that the content of the breakfast did not contain the nutrients required to enhance cognitive function. A good quality breakfast provides young people with the energy they need for learning and to maintain good behaviour.

Food and mood (how breakfast affects behaviour and learning)

When blood glucose levels are low, adrenaline and cortisol hormones are released, causing feelings of irritability and thus outbursts of bad behaviour. Children who skip breakfast simply do not have enough fuel for the oxidation of glucose and therefore cannot cope with the demands of school. The long-term effects of eating a quality breakfast have been researched and show how consistent eating of a good breakfast show children associating learning with positive mood and this has positive links on brain performance (3). Those who skip breakfast find it much harder to concentrate and therefore, much harder to achieve highly at school.

Poor nutritional breakfasts

Breakfast is better than no breakfast.

Skipping breakfast has been found to be linked with abdominal obesity in primary school children as well as increased likelihood of outbursts in behaviour, poor attention, poor alertness and memory (4). All being detrimental to learning and grades achieved in school.

However, many popular children’s breakfast cereals are extremely high in sugar. Sugary cereals can cause spikes in blood glucose levels and high blood sugar levels can cause experiences of irritability, dizziness and aggression. Once the spike in sugar has worn off, the dips in blood glucose have been directly associated with poor memory and attention.


Note that 4-6 years are recommended to intake no more than 19g of sugar daily with the recommendation for 7-10-year-olds being 24g of sugar. Change4Life provide examples of sugary cereal swaps via

What should children be eating for breakfast?

Research has highlighted the potential of low glycaemic index carbohydrates (slow glucose releasing carbohydrates) and a high glycaemic load (amount of carbohydrate) breakfast meal for improved learning, through its effects on glucose and cortisol (stress hormone) levels (3). A common example of this sort of breakfast meal is no added sugar muesli with semi-skimmed milk, eggs on brown bread toast and porridge with fruit.

Common breakfast foods such as milk and cereals are good sources of nutrients that positively affect brain function (5). The NHS have provided a guide to healthy breakfast cereals that can be found via this link

Other examples of healthy breakfast ideas from the NHS can be found through the following link:

What makes up a good quality breakfast?

-Carbohydrates to provide fuel for the day via oxidation of glucose (6). Focus on low GI carbs such as porridge oats and muesli. For low-GI breakfast recipes see this link from BBC good food for ideas

-Fibre helps slow the release of blood glucose providing a steady drip of energy throughout the morning. Adding fruits, seeds and nuts to breakfast cereals or porridge is a great way to increase fibre and nutrients.

-Micronutrients are widely available in fruits, nuts and seeds. They are important for overall health and function.

-Protein helps keep us fuller for longer! A decent amount of protein (5-10g) in a child’s breakfast will help to keep them full throughout the morning, allowing them to concentrate and reduce outburst in behaviour.

To summarize, a good quality breakfast containing a balance of nutrients can help to set your child with enough energy for a happy and healthy school day, which, provides the best opportunity for them to reach their potential.

Thank you to guest writer Sam Keane for writing this week's blog post. Sam is a 2020 graduate from the BSc Nutrition and Exercise as medicine programme at the University of Salford and will continue his academic journey in this field with an MSc in Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Sam looks forward to developing as a nutritionist and practitioner and helping individuals improve their performance in whatever discipline that may be.


1. Hoyland, A., Dye, L., & Lawton, C. L. (2009). A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutrition research reviews, 22(2), 220-243.

2. Cooper, S. B., Bandelow, S., Nute, M. L., Morris, J. G., & Nevill, M. E. (2012). Breakfast glycaemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children. British Journal of Nutrition, 107(12), 1823-1832.

3. Wesnes, K. A., Pincock, C., Richardson, D., Helm, G., & Hails, S. (2003). Breakfast reduces declines in attention and memory over the morning in schoolchildren. Appetite, 41(3), 329-331.

4. Kesztyüs, D., Traub, M., Lauer, R., Kesztyüs, T., & Steinacker, J. M. (2017). Skipping breakfast is detrimental for primary school children: cross-sectional analysis of determinants for targeted prevention. BMC public health, 17(1), 258. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4169-z

5. Benton, D. (2001). The impact of the supply of glucose to the brain on mood and memory. Nutrition Reviews, 59, S20-21.

6. Coulthard, J. D., Palla, L., & Pot, G. K. (2017). Breakfast consumption and nutrient intakes in 4-18-year-olds: UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme (2008-2012). The British journal of nutrition, 118(4), 280–290. doi:10.1017/S0007114517001714

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