How Skipping Breakfast Can Negatively Affect Your Child’s Physical and Mental Health

    • Researchers say breakfast provides physical benefits as well as a psychosocial boost for children.
    • They add that what a child eats for breakfast and where they eat the morning meal can also make a difference.
    • Experts say a healthy breakfast can also enhance a child’s performance in school.
    • They suggest that busy parents can prepare breakfast the night before to save time in the morning.

Intermittent fasters may want to re-think the idea of skipping breakfast. Or at least make sure their children don’t.

New research published today says eating breakfast not only provides physical benefits but psychosocial ones as well for teens.

In the study, researchers say that not only is breakfast itself important to teens, so is what they eat and where they eat it.

“Skipping breakfast or eating breakfast away from home is associated with increased likelihood of psychosocial behavioral problems in children and adolescents,” said José Francisco López-Gil, PhD, the study’s first author and a professor at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Cuenca, Spain.

The researchers also say certain foods and drinks are associated with higher or lower odds of psychosocial behavioral problems.

López-Gil and his team looked at data from the 2017 Spanish National Health Survey, including questions concerning breakfast habits and children’s psychosocial health, self-esteem, mood, and anxiety. Questions were answered by parents or guardians of 3,772 Spanish children between the ages of 4 and 14.

Researchers reported that eating breakfast away from home was nearly as detrimental as skipping breakfast entirely, which the team attributed to meals away from home being less nutritious.

They also found that coffee, milk, tea, chocolate, cocoa, yogurt, bread, toast, cereals, and pastries were all associated with lower chances of behavioral problems. Eggs, cheese, and ham were linked with higher risks of such issues.

The team said the availability of nutritious breakfasts at schools would likely influence the results, as would social and family support that comes during breakfast at home.

“Our findings reinforce the need to promote not only breakfast as part of a healthy lifestyle routine but also that it should be eaten at home,” López-Gil said. “Also, to prevent psychosocial health problems, a breakfast that includes dairy and/or cereals, and minimizes certain animal foods high in saturated fat/cholesterol, could help to decrease psychosocial health problems in young people.”

Eating a healthy breakfast

Katie Tomaschko, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Buffalo, New York, told Healthline that eating at home likely means healthier choices.

“More importantly, they can spend some bonding time with their family and check in before their day. This provides structure and routine and lays the foundation for healthier habits – and that is so important for growing kids and teens,” Tomaschko said.

“After sleeping all night, our bodies are dehydrated and not running on any energy provided by food,” she explained. “Skipping breakfast leads to low energy levels when we start our days. When we are feeling low energy, that affects our mood, concentration/focus, and cognitive function. Mindfully eating your breakfast is also a good psychological way to check in with yourself and prepare for your day.”

Tomaschko was skeptical, however, that eating breakfast away from home could be worse than eating nothing at all.

“But this could be that breakfast not only fuels the body but also the mind and emotional status – and having breakfast at home can kind of act like a support system to start your day,” Tomaschko said. “When kids eat away from home, they are more likely to be distracted while they eat and may be missing out on the benefits of the important social bonds that come along with sitting down and having a meal with loved ones. Food can create a bonding experience, not just fuel your body. They’re also more likely to eat more ultra-processed food (like not-so-healthy ‘grab and go’ foods). But I would still say having breakfast (anywhere) is better than no breakfast.”

Mindful eating

Chris Tompkins, an associate psychologist with online education company Theara, told Healthline eating in a calm, safe environment can be helpful in promoting mindful eating.

“Mindful eating allows us to tune into our body’s natural hunger and fullness signals, and to appreciate and enjoy eating,” Tompkins said. “Eating more slowly and consciously aids digestion and promotes satisfaction, and being in the home environment can support this. Eating in an environment where a person feels stressed, hurried, or self-conscious, often has a detrimental impact on their eating experience, digestion, and wellbeing.”

Tompkins said low blood sugar after hours of sleeping causes “tiredness, irritability, and low mood, so from a mental health perspective it’s important to address this.”

“Teens are especially susceptible to body image issues and eating disorders,” he added. “They are under increasing pressure to look a certain way, and unrealistic body standards are being perpetuated by advertising and social media. Eating a nutritious breakfast together can help to mitigate the impact of this.”

Making a difference at school

Brandi Garza, a licensed counselor with Mindpath Health, told Healthline she saw the difference as a school counselor, asking children if they ate breakfast.

“More than half of the time the person in the chair would shrug their shoulders and shake their head no,” Garza said. “Before we progressed, I asked them if they would pick a snack and some water out of a bin in my office. When children, colleagues, or even parents visiting were emotionally dysregulated, a biological check specific to food was a great start.”

And parents being present to monitor what children eat is important, she said.

“Ask any teacher what their adolescent scholars are showing up with as ‘breakfast,’ and you will hear things like energy drinks, sodas, Starbucks, or the newest craze of flaming hot something,” Garza said. “For four years I worked at one particular school that offered free breakfast to every student. Despite this offering, most students chose to walk to the local 7-Eleven and buy preferred snacks, high quick energy, and even higher sugar content.”

Tips for parents

Christina Meyer-Jax, RDN, nutrition chair and an assistant professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minnesota, suggested parents begin breakfast strategy the night before.

“For example, adding smoothie ingredients into the blender and putting it in the fridge; that way it’s prepared in the morning,” Meyer-Jax told Healthline. “Another example is to eat dinner leftovers for breakfast. Often our dinner meals are perfectly balanced with protein and nutrient-dense high fiber carbs. This is a much better choice than sugary cereal, pastries, or sweet granola bars.”

And for children who say they’re not hungry?

“One of the reasons people say they aren’t hungry in the morning is due to hunger pains,” Meyer-Jax noted. “In that situation, eating something small can help ease digestion and slowly fire up metabolic enzymes and hormones.“

“I recommend starting with a glass of water, then a small piece of fruit or cup of berries, thin rice cake with nut butter, string cheese, or a hard-boiled egg for protein,” she added. “For those who regularly drink coffee or tea, it’s perfectly fine to include it as part of your morning routine but adding in the water and small healthy foods helps to keep blood sugar even. Too much caffeine without food can lead to a spike in energy, but then a low blood sugar crash with jitters.”