It turns out that the old-timey wisdom is true — breakfast might just be the most important meal of the day, especially for kids. A new study out of Spain found that kids who eat breakfast are less likely to develop specific mental health issues than peers who skip the meal entirely.
The research team, based out of the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Cuenca, Spain, analyzed data compiled for the 2017 Spanish National Health Survey. The data consisted of questionnaires completed by the parents of children from age 4 to 14 regarding emotional and social characteristics and questions about breakfast habits.
In the study, the researchers found that kids who ate a nutritious breakfast had fewer psychosocial concerns than kids who did not. Lopez-Gil and his team found that consumption of coffee, milk, tea, chocolate, cocoa, yogurt, bread, toast, cereals, and pastries correlated to fewer behavioral issues than consumption of high-protein foods such as eggs, cheese, and ham. (It is important to note, however, that these were the only examples of high-protein foods provided in the questionnaire, so the findings may not apply to consumption of other high-protein foods for breakfast such as peanut butter.)
Surprisingly, the research team also found that kids who ate breakfast at home had more positive behavioral outcomes than those who ate it elsewhere.
“Our results suggest that it is not only important to eat breakfast, but it’s also important where young people eat breakfast and what they eat,” first author first author Dr. José Francisco López-Gil said in a press release for the study. “Skipping breakfast or eating breakfast away from home is associated with increased likelihood of psychosocial behavioral problems in children and adolescents. Similarly, consumption of certain foods/drinks are associated with higher (e.g., processed meat) or lower (e.g., dairies, cereals) odds of psychosocial behavioral problems.”
The team suggests that the family time kids experience while eating their first meal of the day at home could play a part in the positive emotional health outcomes, but more research is needed to be sure, especially because the study was correlational.
“The fact that eating breakfast away from home is associated with greater psychosocial health problems is a novel aspect of our study,” said López-Gil. “Our findings reinforce the need to promote not only breakfast as part of a healthy lifestyle routine but also that it should be eaten at home. Also, to prevent psychosocial health problems, a breakfast that includes dairy and/or cereals, and minimizes certain animal foods high in saturated fat/cholesterol, could help to decrease psychosocial health problems in young people.”
Skipping breakfast, however, was linked to a greater odds of psychosocial behavioral problems than eating breakfast outside of the home. And according to data from the School Nutrition Association, almost 12 million children took part in their schools’ free breakfast program before the start of the pandemic. That number has undoubtedly risen as a result of federally funded COVID-19 school meal programs.
Families choose to participate in school meal programs for several reasons, but free breakfast programs are traditionally based on financial need. Children from low-income families who face food insecurity depend on school meals for their daily nutrition. Until the U.S. takes significant steps to solve child hunger, children will continue to rely on school meals that, according to Dr. Lopez-Gil and his team, are detrimental to their mental health.