For some tweens and teens, it’s the most unimportant meal of the day. Why aren’t more kids eating breakfast?
They’re rushed. They’re tired. They’re just not hungry yet.
It’s a habit that medical researchers say could create serious health problems if it continues into adulthood. Still, many kids are skipping breakfast as they get older.
“It’s too early,” said Markysha Wilson, 18, explaining why she can’t stomach any food before going to school. Her first class at Hopkins High School starts at 7:45 a.m. when she’s still too tired to think about eating.
But by 10 a.m., she’s hungry. What does she eat? Doritos and a Monster Energy Drink.
Kids who skip breakfast may be planting the seeds for a lifetime of missing what’s often called “the most important meal of the day.” The practice often starts in adolescence. Nearly a third of adolescents skip breakfast every day, and as many as 60 percent miss breakfast more than three times a week, according to a recent article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
The trend persists despite a barrage of research — and parental advice — that suggests eating breakfast daily is good for you. Regular breakfast eaters are less likely to have heart attacks, and less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, recent studies show. Some research links breakfast to academic performance: Children who eat it are more alert, concentrate better and receive better grades. Whether eating breakfast can help stem the tide of childhood obesity is a matter of heated debate.
The struggle to get kids to fuel up before they start their day vexes many parents. But increasingly, they have a new ally in this fight: schools. More than 89,000 schools nationwide serve breakfast, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number has risen over the years as more schools serve breakfast to all children — not just those in economic need.
In Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin Schools, breakfast programs are in every building. They include sit-down meals in the cafeteria and grab-n-go items. Some schools even let kids bring breakfast to class.
“The overall feeling is that if [breakfast is] that important, then shouldn’t we make sure students are getting breakfast?” said Cindy Hiltz, health service coordinator for the district.
Frantic, missed meals
Many young people and their families say breakfast simply gets lost in the morning rush. Other activities — sleeping in, chatting with their friends in school hallways — are more important to teens than a morning meal, said Esther Motyka, site operations and food safety manager for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
This is a problem because adolescence is an age when many health behaviors are formed, said Andrew Odegaard, a researcher from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.
“It’s time-consuming so it’s hard to do,” said Nyjee Arradondo, 17, a student at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka. Even so, she has been on a breakfast kick lately, eating a bowl of cereal before school.
Alice Seuffert, a St. Paul mother of two young children, says recent mornings are a little less hectic because her kids are eating breakfast at school. Both she and her husband work full time. Last year, they fed the kids at home — a ritual that required them to get up much earlier.
“It’s really hard because you’re not only trying to get your kids ready, but you want to find them things that are healthy — not just a sugary bowl of cereal,” she said.
Seuffert, who writes a blog called “Dining With Alice,” has taken on the topic of fast, healthy breakfast recipes for kids. Making breakfast in the morning is rarely the tranquil scene depicted in commercials, Seuffert said. It’s much more chaotic.
“You feel like a chicken with your head cut off in the mornings,” she said. “I’ve got the baby in the highchair screaming and I’m throwing some cheese and bread at him. Then my 4-year-old is asking me: ‘Why can’t we eat rocks?’ And then I’m trying to help my husband. And we’re all trying to get out of the house.”
A steady decline
What’s for breakfast has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. The standard American breakfast in the 1960s consisted of bacon, eggs, toast and milk. That’s been replaced by ready-to-eat boxed cereals and carbohydrate-rich foods. In fact, breakfast has been falling out of favor for the past 20 years, according to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine article on “The Benefits of Breakfast Consumption to Combat Obesity and Diabetes in Young People.”
The trend has closely paralleled a significant rise in obesity, the researchers said. Overweight and obese youths are twice as likely to skip breakfast as their peers who are a normal weight.
In June, a study led by Odegaard at the University of Minnesota, found that people who ate breakfast at least four times a week had a “significantly lower risk” of developing obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes than those who skipped. A month later, Harvard University researchers published a study that showed that men who skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack than those who ate breakfast.
Much of this research homes in on people’s breakfast-eating habits. “What those studies have shown is that the people who eat breakfast tend to eat less throughout the day,” Odegaard said. “People who skip it end up gorging on meals and snacks later throughout the day.”
But research linking breakfast to weight control has come under fire lately. The collective breakfast studies, noted the authors of a study published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have not established a “causal relation” between skipping breakfast and obesity.
Still, research chronicling the benefits of breakfast abounds. A recent Ohio University study, which used brain scans of students, discovered that those who ate a healthy breakfast and exercised every day had higher test scores and better concentration skills in class.
Wilson, the Hopkins High student, is starting to rethink her habit of eating nothing but junk food in the morning. It makes her feel “tired and slouchy” at school, she said. “I think I’d do better if I ate a cooked breakfast.”
On a recent morning at Hopkins West Junior High, the food service staff armed themselves with a menu designed to win over young taste buds and nutritionists alike. By 7:20 a.m. the doors had swung open and students poured into the cafeteria.
At one table, friends Nick Dutcher, 13, and Everett Hopp, 12, chatted over their plates of waffles, pears and milk. Both boys are big fans of breakfast and make it a habit to eat something every morning — either at home or at school. Hopp said he was surprised to learn that many kids his age choose not to eat breakfast.
“People I know are always eating breakfast,” he said, shaking his head.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488