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A Better Breakfast Can Boost a Child's Brainpower

Attention, children: Do not skip breakfast -- or your grades could pay a price.

Evidence suggests that eating breakfast really does help kids learn. After fasting all night, a developing body (and brain) needs a fresh supply of glucose -- or blood sugar. That's the brain's basic fuel.

"Without glucose," explains Terrill Bravender, professor of pediatrics at Duke University, "our brain simply doesn't operate as well. People have difficulty understanding new information, [they have a] problem with visual and spatial understanding, and they don't remember things as well."

Dozens of studies from as far back as the 1950s have consistently shown that children who eat breakfast perform better academically than those who don't. In a recent study of 4,000 elementary school students, researchers measured the effects of eating breakfast by administering a battery of attention tests. To measure short-term memory, researchers read a series of digits out loud -- 5, 4, 2 and so on -- and asked the children to repeat them. The children were scored on how many digits they could remember correctly. To test verbal fluency, the kids were asked to name all the animals they could think of in 60 seconds. Across the board, Murphy says, the breakfast eaters performed better than those children who had skipped breakfast.

With the preponderance of evidence suggesting that breakfast is key, the next question becomes: Does it matter what kind of breakfast kids eat?

The answer is: Yes.

Bravender, for example, says he'd never serve his children heavily sweetened cereals. "Any sugared cereal really has a high glycemic index."

The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrates in food are absorbed into our bodies and converted to fuel. When it comes to sustained brain power, Bravender explains, food that is low on the scale -- such as whole grains -- are preferable. Even though a bowl of sugary cereal and a bowl of old-fashioned oatmeal may have the same number of carbohydrates, they have very different glycemic loads.

Sugary cereals get into your body quickly and cause a peak in blood-sugar levels, but the levels then fall dramatically after two hours or so. Oatmeal, on the other hand, is absorbed slowly, so oatmeal eaters gets a slow rise in blood sugar and enough energy to last through the morning.

What's more, oatmeal eaters don't experience a steep drop in blood-sugar levels, and that's a good thing. A dip in blood sugar can bring with it a release of hormones that affect mood. In some children, the hormones seem to affect concentration and memory.

Scientists have recently begun to study this phenomenon. Last year, Tufts University psychologist Holly Taylor had one group of children eat sweetened oatmeal for breakfast while another ate Cap'n Crunch cereal. Then both groups were given academic tasks, like memorizing the names of countries on a map. The oatmeal eaters did up to 20 percent better than the Crunch consumers. To Taylor, that shows that "the children were remembering more information about these maps after having eaten oatmeal."

And it wasn't as if the oatmeal wasn't sweet. Both cereals had the same sugar content. But Taylor says that the oatmeal had more protein and fiber, and therefore a lower glycemic index.

These findings beg more research. But Duke's Terrill Bravender believes there are some basic rules to follow. First, families should make sure kids eat something for breakfast. And if the goal is to find foods with a low glycemic index, then serve fewer processed foods. That will improve the odds that your child's blood sugar will hold steady until lunch.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.