Kids, Eat Your Breakfast!

Did you know that the U.S. Center for Disease Control predicts that one third of all Americans will have diabetes by the year 2050? This scary statistic is not just an American phenomenon; many Western countries’ modernized diets have led to a diabetes epidemic, and China already has more diabetics than any other country. The main culprit is always obesity and unhealthy diet — lifestyle patterns that are set as children, and which are very difficult to change later on. A crucial step is to always have breakfast. Most of the 20-30% of children and teens skipping breakfast may think it’s no big deal, but the long-term consequences of skipping breakfast can be serious enough to warrant a big family discussion. We all know instinctively that eating breakfast is important, but just how important is it? Fortunately, there are a slew of new studies that can help parents convince their kids to eat breakfast — as well as eat it themselves!

The importance of eating breakfast was recently covered in a fascinating, 20-year study just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In this study, researchers asked 2,000 school children about their breakfast habits, then followed up with them 20 years later and assessed their health. The results were striking; those kids who skipped breakfast all those years had a larger waist — by 2 inches! These same kids as adults also had higher insulin levels, which leads to more diabetes. They also had higher total cholesterol and the “bad” cholesterol, LDL — both of which cause clogging of the arteries and lead eventually to heart attacks and strokes.

And here’s an important tip for those girls who skip breakfast to lose weight; children who skip breakfast actually end up more obese than those who eat breakfast! The main reason for this is mostly because breakfast-skippers get very hungry by lunchtime and end up binging more, usually with less healthy mid-morning snacks and bigger lunch portions. These bad routines slowly lead to larger waists, and year after year these effects turn into more serious health issues as adults.

But it’s not just long-term health that’s at stake; many studies suggest that proper breakfasts and overall nutrition help to improve memory, test grades, and school attendance. One study, published in 2008 in Pediatrics, showed that high school teens who ate breakfast felt much more alert and more positive, with improved short-term memory.

The type of breakfast is also important. The main research suggests what is obvious to parents — that simple sugars in sweetened cereals are much less healthy than high-fiber, more complex whole-grain cereals as well as fruits, nuts, and dairy products. Those quick energy bursts from the sugary cereals give kids a quick “high” which just as quickly wears off, and their brains and body are dragging along come lunchtime. And there’s evidence to back this up; studies have shown that short-term morning memory and test scores are lower with a high simple-sugar breakfast.

So, the next time your kids are trying to run out the door before breakfast, sit them down in front of a bowl of Wheaties with yogut and tell them how breakfast helps with better grades as well as better health — now, and in their futures.

(This post was originally printed in BeijingKids jan/feb issue…)

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