Adolescent Breakfast Skipping: An Australian Study

By Shaw, Mary E. | Adolescence, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Breakfast Skipping: An Australian Study

Shaw, Mary E., Adolescence

Breakfast is often referred to as the most important meal of the day. Evidence suggests that breakfast contributes to well-being in a number of areas. First, it is a central component of nutritional well-being, contributing to total daily energy and nutrient intake (Nicklas, Bao, Webber, & Berenson, 1993). Hill, Greer, Link, Ellersieck, and Dowdy (1991) analyzed the dietary records of children aged one to five and found that those who skipped breakfast had lower total energy intake than did those who ate breakfast; Nicklas et al. (1993) reported similar findings. A number of studies have also found that skippers have relatively worse intake of various vitamins and minerals (Hanes, Vermeersch, & Gale, 1984; Morgan, Zabik, & Stampey, 1986; Bidgood & Cameron, 1992; Nicklas et al., 1993). Nutrient intake during the rest of the day tends not to compensate for skipping breakfast (Nicklas et al., 1993). In fact, skippers are more likely to eat high-fat snacks and to have higher cholesterol levels than do breakfast consumers (Resnicow, 1991).

It has also been contended that skipping breakfast has deleterious effects upon various aspects of cognitive functioning. According to Pelican, O'Connell, and Byrd-Bredbrenner (1985), teachers report that hungry children are more likely to be apathetic, inattentive, and disruptive. This anecdotal evidence is supported by Meyers (1989), who has asserted that calorie deprivation can lead to children being so apathetic and listless that they withdraw from play, exploration, and social interaction. In particular, hunger in the morning can affect performance at school (Meyers, 1989). Pollitt, Gersovitz, and Gargiulo (1978), in a review of the literature, concluded that lack of breakfast may affect arithmetic and reading ability as well as physical work output. A study by Pollitt, Leibel, and Greenfield (1981) tentatively confirmed that fasting can affect cognitive functioning. Likewise, Conners and Blouin (1982/3) found that children who ate breakfast made fewer errors on a continuous-performance task and did better on an arithmetic test, while Simeon and Grantham-McGregor (1989) found that stunted or previously malnourished children, as compared with a control group, were adversely affected on cognitive tests by not eating breakfast. However, studies by Dickie and Bender (1982a, 1982b) found that missing breakfast had no effect on performance in arithmetic or on short-term memory and attention-demanding tasks, and Craig (1986) found no effect of breakfast on mental performance.

Breakfast has also been linked to long-term health. Eating breakfast was one of the "seven healthy habits" identified by Belloc and Breslow (1972) in the Alameda County Study. Nearly 15% of their sample rarely or never ate breakfast, and those who ate breakfast almost every day (and did not often eat between meals) reported slightly but significantly better physical health than skippers. In a follow-up of the same sample, Berkman and Breslow (1983) found that regular breakfast eaters had lower mortality rates, although these findings were not statistically significant.

Finally, missing meals can be seen as part of the voluntary restriction of food intake associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa (American Psychiatric Association, 1987). Melve and Baerheim (1994) have suggested that skipping breakfast and other meals can be used as a possible indicator of subclinical eating disorders.

Thus, there is a range of evidence attesting to the benefits of eating breakfast. In addition, it is important to start life with healthy habits (Graham & Uphold, 1992), such as eating breakfast. A number of researchers have argued that habits are formed early in life (Perry, Griffin, & Murphy, 1985) and are likely to continue unchanged into adulthood (Nicklas et al., 1993). Established habits are considered difficult to alter, hence the focus upon the early years (Cohen, Brownell, & Felix, 1990). …

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