Stop skipping after kipping – eat breakfast!

Our editor Jon Sutton reports on Professor Louise Dye's talk at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

A decade ago, Professor Louise Dye (University of Leeds) and her team looked for studies of the cognitive and behavioural effects of breakfast. ‘We thought there would be hundreds,’ she said. They found only 45 with objective measures of performance, and most of these looked at acute effects in well-nourished children. Ten years later, ‘giving breakfast at school is a massive industry’, and psychologists have got plenty on their methodological plate… studies are often sponsored by industry and related to specific products, and it is very difficult to ‘blind’ studies (‘you know if you got breakfast or not’, said Dye).

Why so interested in breakfast? It’s modifiable, part of most people’s dietary habits after a longer overnight fast, and it should set you up for the day: there’s higher brain glucose metabolism in the morning, and that’s vital for our functioning through the day when our brain is so energy hungry.

That initial review found an advantage for those who had consumed breakfast, but little effect of breakfast type – ‘we can’t really say that Shreddies or Cheerios would be better than the other’. Dye and her team published a recent update, looking at ‘intervention studies’ only (again finding 45). There were beneficial effects on attention, memory and executive function, and better maintenance of function over the morning. These effects were, however, more apparent in undernourished children.

As with so many areas in psychology, confounding variables abound. ‘If you put a poster up and say come and do a breakfast study, who comes? People who like breakfast… they were a bit whingey on the days they didn't get breakfast.’ And IQ seems to play a role: in one unpublished study controlling for it, participants learned the same amount when they had breakfast, but got there faster. Using the Corsi block tapping task, Dye concluded: ‘If you are average or below and you miss breakfast, your performance will be worse; if you have a lot of cognitive resource because you are more intellectually able, missing breakfast won’t make much difference.’

With the Children’s Society reporting in 2012 that 45 per cent of teachers say they have hungry children in their classes, and many programmes supported by big companies, breakfast is high on the agenda of politics and industry. Putting it all into perspective, Dye mentioned a 2013 study from Nkhoma in Malawi, which found a nutritional benefit but not a cognitive benefit. Why? Well, perhaps because everybody was getting a 25 per cent reduced ration so that nobody missed out. This tells us something about how people might use psychological data, Dye said. ‘You could say “this had no benefit, why are we giving this overseas aid?”; or you could say “these people should be getting more”’.

Closer to home, research has found that those who rarely consumed breakfast are unlikely to get the highest GCSE grades. However, this relationship was specific to adolescents from low/middle SES backgrounds only; were high SES children more likely to get a tutor, Dye pondered? Again, it comes down to having ‘more resource to do something about it’.

When a definition of breakfast for many is ‘last night’s takeaway leftovers’, does Dye recommend it? Yes – ‘have something – something is better than nothing, but make your choice on nutritional benefits, not cognitive’. Nutrition is unique in that it can directly modify our genetic structure and mediate how genetic factors are expressed. Think about that next time you bolt out of the door without at least a bite to eat! 

- Read more on Professor Dye's studies

More coverage from the Society's Annual Conference will appear here in the coming weeks, and in the July print edition. Find out about our 2018 event

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