Spotlight On: Adolescent Nutrition, Health and Learning

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Placing children and young people at the heart of what we do is one of our core values as a charity to support our mission to end child morning hunger, now and for good. In this blog post, we shine a light on adolescence (a.k.a. the teenage years), and the role of nutrition in supporting health, wellbeing and learning outcomes for this age group. We also look at some of the challenges in building healthy habits and opportunities to engage and empower young people to take control of their own health, and in turn, the health of their communities.

What exactly is adolescence?

The life stage termed ‘adolescence’ can span from age 10 into the mid-twenties, when the pre-frontal cortex (rational decision-making part of the brain) is fully developed. It is a period of rapid growth, not only in terms of physical development, but also for cognitive (brain) development and embedding habits, beliefs and practices that can determine health later on in adult life.

What do adolescents need, nutritionally speaking?

The human body’s need for ‘macronutrients’ (energy from carbohydrates, proteins and essential fats) increases steadily through childhood and into adolescence, in line with developmental milestones and levels of activity. Public health guidelines have been set for daily nutrient requirements in order to maintain health and prevent malnutrition. What each person needs in terms of nutrition is dependent on a person’s age, gender, level of physical activity and health status. However, an enhanced need for specific nutrients such as protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin C and some B vitamins in adolescence makes this a key period to focus on healthy eating habits. 

Why are we concerned?

In contrast with public health recommendations for adolescents to obtain a nutritious diet, many young people are not meeting their dietary needs for nutrients that are essential for physical and cognitive development. We learnt from the British Nutrition Foundation that only 4% of young people surveyed are meeting the daily recommendation for fibre (and we know that fibre is linked to feeling fuller for longer and supports gut health).

Furthermore, nearly half of teenage girls have low iron levels, which can impact energy levels, cognitive function and immunity. Calcium and vitamin D intakes in adolescents are also reported to be low, which is of concern as adolescence is a critical time of bone mineralisation and impacts bone health later in life.

Low levels of essential nutrients, coupled with high intakes of sugar, salt and saturated fat from processed foods, lead to poor diet quality which we know increases the risk of poor health outcomes.

What’s for breakfast?

Our recent What’s for Breakfast? report highlighted that as children grow into adolescents, they are less likely to eat breakfast regularly, with 60% of secondary school pupils reporting they don’t eat breakfast everyday. In fact, there is a steep drop in breakfast consumption as children get older, from 75% of 4 – 7 year olds to 30% of 15+ year olds eating breakfast daily.

It is widely recognised that breakfast is an important opportunity to fuel our bodies and minds for the day ahead, and to contribute to a healthy, balanced diet that provides the nutrients we need to thrive.  

A recent review 1 on breakfast consumption in young people highlights that those who regularly eat breakfast have a higher daily intake of certain nutrients than breakfast skippers. Furthermore, skipping breakfast can have negative short term effects on blood sugar regulation, energy levels and concentration, and can lead to reduced nutrient intake over time. 

What are the challenges young people face in making healthy choices?

The most common reasons given for skipping breakfast in school-age pupils2 were not feeling hungry, not enough time and preference to stay in bed longer. These findings chime with wider studies3 that suggest as children enter adolescence, their circadian rhythm may be affected, and in turn alter their sleep-wake cycles. This impacts the time many young people go to bed, and the time they are ready to get up. Busy mornings and lack of time were common barriers to eating breakfast before school. Girls were also more likely to skip breakfast more frequently due to concerns around gaining weight (20% of girls aged 11 – 14).

Alongside this, there are many factors which determine adolescent food choices, with media messaging, industry marketing, peer and family influence, economic status, food insecurity, rising costs, availability and convenience of fast foods, promotional offers on unhealthy options and existing health status all playing a role in what young people can, and choose, to eat.

How is eating breakfast linked to academic performance in secondary school students?

Dr Katie Adolphus, research fellow at the University of Leeds School of Psychology, shared with us some valuable research into the role of breakfast on cognitive function and learning outcomes in children and young people.

A study looking at regular breakfast consumption and academic performance outcomes demonstrated that eating breakfast regularly before morning lessons had a positive impact on GCSE attainment.4

Dr Katie Adolphus explained to us that cognitive functions such as working memory, reaction time and attention are all supported by eating breakfast before completing learning tasks. These are linked to higher-level skills such as problem solving, reasoning, analysing and planning, which are all essential for effective learning. Likewise, students’ mood was positively impacted after consuming breakfast, with students reporting increased energy levels, better concentration, feeling more alert, cheerful and motivated to learn.5

How can we engage young people to take control of their health and wellbeing?

There is a common assumption that young people will more often choose unhealthy options over nutritious meals. While there is a real concern that fast food is often marketed towards this demographic, it is important to challenge this misconception and highlight the diverse preferences and choices of young individuals. Many young people, when empowered with knowledge and choice, will choose the healthy option, for themselves and the health of the planet.

We heard from Sabine Appleby, nutritionist and project manager at School Food Matters, that by involving young people in the discussion around school food policy and acting on their interests and concerns, we can engage them in food education and empower them to make informed, healthy choices. Simple actions that can be implemented within education settings include:

  • Displaying positive food images and messaging in the school environment
  • Surveying students to gather their ideas and opinions
  • Creating a student council to act as ambassadors for health
  • Celebrating food diversity across cultures
  • Offering workshops and bringing in guest speakers to encourage interest in health and food industry careers
  • Practical cooking lessons to equip young people with the skills they need to support themselves as they gain independence in adulthood.
  • Opportunities to link food choices with issues of sustainability and environmental impact, functional performance and mental health – issues that young people are already widely engaged in.

What are we doing at Magic Breakfast to enable healthy choices?

As a hunger focused charity, we are well aware of the rising costs of food and the impact Cost of Living is having on families, schools and communities. The schools Magic Breakfast partner with receive expert guidance from our Engagement Partners who are on hand to listen, visit schools and troubleshoot the challenges of providing an appealing, nutritious and inclusive school breakfast each morning.

All of the breakfast foods we supply to schools comply with national School Food Standards, which exist to protect and promote pupils’ dietary health. Many of the products we provide are fortified with key nutrients which we have seen, are often lacking in adolescent diets.

While acknowledging common food preferences amongst young people, we continue to source and offer foods which offer the best possible nutrition in line with availability, logistics of delivery and storage and public health guidance (i.e., lower sugar, higher fibre products, combined with available protein sources that offer a balanced, nutritious breakfast to start the day).

As we gain more insights into the experiences of young people and their communities, we strive to expand our research and advocacy work to allow their voices to be heard, provide recommendations for effective, inclusive breakfast programmes that reach the most vulnerable and raise awareness of the importance of breakfast for health and learning.

  1. Giménez-Legarre N, Miguel-Berges ML, Flores-Barrantes P, Santaliestra-Pasías AM, Moreno LA. Breakfast Characteristics and Its Association with Daily Micronutrients Intake in Children and Adolescents–A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2020; 12(10):3201.
  2. What’s for Breakfast? Children, young people and parents reflect on their morning routines. Magic Breakfast, May 2023
  3. Tarokh, L., Short, M., Crowley, S.J. et al. Sleep and Circadian Rhythms in Adolescence. Curr Sleep Medicine Rep 5, 181–192 (2019).
  4. Adolphus, Katie & Lawton, Clare & Dye, Louise. (2019). Associations Between Habitual School-Day Breakfast Consumption Frequency and Academic Performance in British Adolescents. Frontiers in Public Health. 7. 283. 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00283.
  5. Adolphus, Katie & Hoyland, Alexa & Walton, Jenny & Quadt, Frits & Lawton, Clare & Dye, Louise. (2021). Ready-to-eat cereal and milk for breakfast compared with no breakfast has a positive acute effect on cognitive function and subjective state in 11–13-year-olds: a school-based, randomised, controlled, parallel groups trial. European Journal of Nutrition. 60. 10.1007/s00394-021-02506-2.

This page was last updated on

19 January 2024

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