Fuel for Success: How a nutritious breakfast supports learning
Thousands of students up and down the country will sit their exams this May and June, which means many young people will be looking for ways to boost their energy levels and focus in order to feel calm and confident when stepping into the exam room.
We often hear that eating a healthy breakfast is vital to supporting our physical and mental wellbeing, but how exactly does breakfast support learning? And what can we do to ensure we are setting young people up for success in school and beyond the classroom? Below, we examine the current evidence linking eating breakfast with cognitive function, academic performance and mental wellbeing in children and young people and suggest ideas for the best breakfast foods to boost brainpower.
Why do brains need breakfast?
We all know how important it is for athletes to fuel their bodies with quality food before a physically demanding sports event; it’s no different for anyone sitting down to an exam. Focus, memory recall, and creative imagination are all cognitive skills required to perform optimally in an exam, for any subject.
For the brain to function, it needs fuel in the form of glucose. The body breaks down many of the foods we eat into glucose, which is readily absorbed into cells with the help of a hormone called insulin, in order to produce the raw energy our bodies use every day. This energy is essential for problem solving, creating, calculating, and recalling facts quickly.
Children metabolise glucose faster than adults, highlighting their need to ‘re-fuel’ with regular meals so that energy levels don’t dip too low and cause unwanted effects such as low mood, brain fog, tiredness, or attention problems.
If we consider the timing of breakfast and how the body works, it becomes clear why eating in the morning is so important. The word ‘break-fast’ comes from the historical practice of breaking an overnight fast by eating simple, nourishing foods first thing in the morning, before the day’s activities begin. Any glucose the body doesn’t need immediately after the evening meal is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. These ‘glycogen stores’ are gradually used up overnight while we are sleeping. Children and adolescents in particular have higher sleep demands due to their developing bodies, which rapidly decreases these overnight energy stores. So, for young people, breaking the overnight fast with energy-producing, nutrient-rich foods really is vital for kickstarting their day.
What are the benefits of breakfast on learning skills?
In recent years, more and more research is emerging to suggest that students who eat breakfast perform better in their learning environment and when tested through exams. One review suggested that young people who had eaten breakfast before school completed tasks that demanded attention and memory recall more successfully than those who didn’t eat breakfast.
In particular, eating foods that are considered ‘low GI’ (complex carbohydrates that release energy slowly over a period of time) was associated with better attention levels during the task period.
A US study examining the effect of breakfast on specific cognitive tasks showed that Elementary school children who ate breakfast the morning of a standardised test achieved significantly higher scores in spelling, reading, and mathematics, compared to those who did not eat breakfast. In the UK, where GCSEs are the standard measure of academic performance for most 16-year- olds completing their secondary education, a study has associated regular breakfast consumption with higher overall test scores compared to adolescents who rarely or never ate breakfast before the start of the school day. (Adolphus et al, 2019)
A previous review (Adolphus et al, 2013) found evidence to support the positive link between regularly eating breakfast consumption and improved academic performance in terms of school grades or test scores. The positive results were emphasised in pupils who were undernourished or from food insecure or low socioeconomic households, highlighting the importance of a universal school breakfast provision that can support the most vulnerable young people while being accessible to all students, without stigma or barriers.
How does eating breakfast support mental wellbeing?
Nerves, anxiety and pressure to succeed may be factors that suppress appetite and put young people off eating breakfast on the day of a test. However, the science tells us that eating a nutritious breakfast could actually help to alleviate anxiety and improve our mood, as well as improving concentration.
One of the main physical factors affecting feelings of wellbeing is blood glucose level. As mentioned, our bodies convert the food we eat into glucose and then energy. It is important to maintain the right level of glucose in our blood to achieve the positive effects of feeling calm, focussed and alert. If our blood glucose level goes too high or too low, it can make us feel tired, sluggish, dizzy, disoriented and less able to concentrate. These physical reactions to irregular blood glucose levels can then affect our mood, increasing the risk of feeling anxious or irritable, further affecting our ability to focus on demanding cognitive tasks. In order to maintain the perfect balance, we should aim to eat regular meals at regular intervals, including plenty of wholegrains, fresh fruit and vegetables and quality protein with each meal.
Protein is important because as well as supporting energy levels, it provides the building blocks for neurotransmitter production (chemical messengers in the brain) such as serotonin, glutamate and GABA, which are all involved in regulating mood, memory, ability to focus and feelings of wellbeing – all key to feeling prepared for an exam.
In a study examining the effect of breakfast consumption on adolescent students’ cognitive function and mood, pupils who had eaten breakfast before completing tasks reported feeling more positive, alert and content during the testing time than those who did not eat breakfast (Defeyter and Russo, 2013).
The link between digestive health and mental wellbeing has received a lot of attention in recent years, so it’s worth touching on this subject here. Our ‘gut microbiome’ is the unique ecosystem constructed of trillions of bacteria which reside in our digestive organs. In an ideal world, the different strains of bacteria all live in harmony within our gut and all have a role to play in producing different chemical compounds to support mental wellbeing as well as maintain physical health. We can encourage beneficial bacteria to thrive by eating foods high in fibre, natural ‘live’ yoghurt and dairy products, and traditionally fermented foods such as keffir, kimchi and sauerkraut. Eating a wide range of whole foods will also encourage a healthy gut microbiome, which links back to the importance of variety in our diet.
Want to find the best brain-boosting breakfast? Our nutritionist, Annah Herbert Graham, suggests some recipes here.