As children reach school age, DHA and iron continue to be key to brain development, but for kids sitting in class for seven hours a day, it’s even more important to keep their energy-hungry brains satiated. Reams of studies show that fueling the brain with breakfast is important for thinking, acting and learning; that’s the impetus behind the federal School Breakfast Program, which aims to ensure that every child begins the school day with something in his or her stomach.
Children who are undernourished perform poorly on cognitive tasks. Eating breakfast improves performance on attention and memory games, especially in the undernourished, but it also helps children who get enough food. This may be a simple case of refueling after an overnight fast: the brain needs glucose (its exclusive fuel source) and eating just about any food, from a candy bar to five-grain muesli, provides it. But new research is saying there’s more to it than that, and not just any breakfast will do.
Margaret Anne Defeyter, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in psychology at Britain’s Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, studies children and the foods they eat. She has a lot to say about how kids prepare their brains each morning. “I was stunned, absolutely stunned to see what children had for breakfast,” she exclaims. “Children tell me they grab a chocolate biscuit [British for cookie] out of the biscuit barrel on their way to school, or stop at the corner shop and buy a can of cola.”
Defeyter wanted to know if a switch to slower-burning carbohydrates might give kids an advantage on tests of attention and memory. To find out, she gave 64 children either low-glycemic-index All-Bran cereal or high-glycemic-index Coco Pops, and then switched them the next day. Guess which one kept kids’ brains a-chugging most of the morning?
“With the high-GI cereal you get this sudden sugar rush, where you perform very well, but it’s quickly followed by a low,” she says. “Whereas with the low-GI cereal, you get a more sustained level of performance. That’s important for children. You want their concentration and attention maintained throughout the school morning for learning.” Other studies swapping in low-GI oatmeal for a higher-GI cereal have shown a similar effect: the lower the GI of the breakfast, the better kids did on cognitive tasks requiring attention and memory. The few studies looking at the effects of breakfast on adult brains showed similar results: low-glycemic-index meals that released glucose slowly into the bloodstream seemed to be associated with better memory.
I thought back to my own childhood, sometimes starting the day with a bowl of Cookie Crisp or, occasionally, Froot Loops. Perhaps it slogged down my timed second-grade multiplication quizzes. But that still didn’t explain why my brain was on the fritz now. Was something else missing?