Fifteen percent of Australian children head off to school without having had any breakfast and the figure is rising. Among secondary school students it’s closer to 20 percent. What are the implications and what should nutritionists do?
The CensusAtSchool survey
CensusAtSchool is an annual nationwide survey of students’ everyday lives, experiences, opinions and interests conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Participation is voluntary so the data produced are not necessarily representative of the whole school population, just those who completed questionnaires. Nevertheless, the findings provide insight into the trends, habits, attitudes and lifestyles of Australian students.
According to the latest survey of nearly 24,000 children, about 15 percent do not consume breakfast and the figure has been rising in recent years. There is considerable variation in breakfast skipping across Australia, from 12 percent of Victorian school children to over 22 percent in the Northern Territory.
Earlier reports from the same survey have highlighted how breakfast consumption declines as children get older. Typically about 7-8 percent of primary school children skip breakfast but the figure rises to about 20 percent for children at secondary school.
An international trend
The downward trend in breakfast consumption is not just limited to children or limited to this country. About 20 percent of European adults skip breakfast. Consumer surveys in the United Kingdom also show that home breakfast occasions are declining as people opt to eat breakfast on-the-move and at work. Those who do eat breakfast at home are wolfing it down, spending just eight minutes on breakfast on weekdays compared to 15 minutes 20 years ago. It seems that everyone is just very, very busy.
What are the nutritional consequences?
According to the latest CensusAtSchool report the most popular breakfast foods in Australia are bread, breakfast cereal, milk and juice. Forgoing nutrient-rich foods and drinks like these would be expected to have adverse nutritional consequences and this turns out to be the case. An Australian study showed that children and adolescents who skipped breakfast were much more likely to have inadequate intakes of thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium and iron. There were similar findings in a United States study, which also found 20 percent of children and nearly 32 percent of adolescents skipped breakfast. A portent of things to come?
The lost milk opportunity is important. The Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (2007) highlighted the decline in milk consumption in girls as they moved into adolescence. Not surprisingly older girls were the most at risk of not meeting their dietary requirements for calcium. The decline in breakfast has probably contributed to this problem and can be expected to exacerbate it in the future.
The CensusAtSchool report also found that about one percent of children drank soft drink at breakfast and another one percent ate lollies or potato chips, so obviously some parents have interesting ideas about nourishing their kids.
Could missing breakfast be a good idea?
Nutritionists are always saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and encouraging its regular consumption. But then again, we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic and the question arises whether skipping one of the main meals, such as breakfast, might actually help to lower daily energy intakes.
In fact, the reverse seems to be true, at least according to evidence from the United States. Two studies – one considering breakfast consumption in children and adolescents and the other considering breakfast cereal consumption in primary school children, have found inverse associations with body weight. It would appear that children who skip breakfast more than compensate for their missing breakfast calories later in the day, with relatively nutrient-poor foods.
Another US study confirmed that breakfast cereal consumption by children and adolescents was associated with lower body weight, though this study had an interesting twist – the researchers considered the sugar content of the breakfast cereals. But it wasn’t relevant. They found that kids eating sugary cereals for breakfast had lower body weights than those who skipped breakfast altogether, and they had higher nutrient intakes.
Now there’s food for thought. If a sugary cereal encourages kids to eat breakfast, facilitates the consumption of milk, increases nutrient intakes and is associated with lower body weight, is it a bad thing?
What should we do?
The decline in breakfast consumption is a problem that’s plain to see but what should nutritionists’ response be? Should we push back against the societal trend and just implore people to take the time to eat traditional breakfast foods at home? Or should we go with the trend and accept that for many people breakfast may be a milk-based drink sipped through a straw on the train or in a car?
I tend to be pragmatic on these issues. Just have a decent breakfast. And if the least worst option is a milk-based drink on the train that would be better than nothing at all, especially for those adolescent girls with low calcium intakes.