Do I Get Smarter by Eating Breakfast?

Studies done on this topic have suggested some interesting findings that I will share with you. One interesting thing in particular, when it comes to the “Not eating breakfast is bad for you”, is that the neuroprotective and cognitively beneficial effects of intermittent fasting which arise from not eating breakfast, are rarely mentioned, despite having solid evidence in science.

Certain studies claimed an effect on academic performance in children who did eat breakfast, yet this has not been proven in randomized clinical trials – the most strict type of study, at least in the time this post was written.

Because of this, the effects can vary differently. We tend to assume that eating patterns will affect everyone in the same way, but we could not be more wrong.

 

Cognition and children

The big focus so far has been on the effects that eating breakfast has on children. There have been improvements in problem solving, comprehension, generation of ideas, as well as visual and auditory short-term memory. Some of these findings become more clear and significant when it is malnourished children, who are the ones to eat breakfast. Those who do not eat adequately are more at risk for lower results in certain academic areas. This is especially true when breakfast provides them with much needed macro- and micronutrients which they would not get otherwise.

This effect becomes even more clear when we are talking about younger children – the differences get more clear when we compare younger children who eat breakfast to those who do not. This is completely understandable, younger children have more demanding nutritional needs because they grow more rapidly and such deficiencies have more devastating effects on a growing body if it is malnourished.

But

Children, who did regularly eat breakfast and then skipped it once, suffered from no deteriorating effects on a wide array of such abilities which include executive functioning, spatial problem solving, psychomotor functioning, speed of processing, visual attention, visual learning, and memory and attention. One case even observed that those who skipped breakfast made less errors when doing memory recall tasks.

And as always, not everything is black and white. When we put their IQ in this equation, it becomes clear that the effect of skipping breakfast occasionally has a different effect on children with different IQ. Children who had above average IQ had an increase in speed of information processing, while the opposite effect was clear for those with below average IQ.

And finally, obese children who started to skip breakfast in an experiment setting were observed to have a decreased attention. The researchers suggest this was probably due to a lack of carbs which they would otherwise eat at breakfast.

 

Cognition and adults

One study gave its participants, which were healthy young adults, a meal of pure fat (butter), some were given a breakfast rich in protein, and others, rich in carbs. Those who had the fatty breakfast scored highest on different cognitive tasks. It is quite possible that the consistent metabolic condition stabilized the performance of people involved. They did not experience and glucose fluctuations or anything similar due to the breakfast being composed out of pure fat. Another interesting finding was that when people were presented with a breakfast they were not accustomed to, in the sense that they would otherwise eat something completely different macronutrient wise, they tended to report a lower mood.

To explain the mechanisms

The mentioned consistent metabolic condition was measured by the ratio of glucagon to insulin concentrations in the blood. This ratio remains low during a nights fast – sleeping. It also varies inversely with the need for producing glucose in the body – the ratio is lowest during total starvation and highest when you eat meals which are rich in carbs. This means that the ratio would rise if you were to eat something consisted out of carbs, but wouldn’t rise if you ate something fatty. It is even possible that eating a fatty breakfast mimics the effects of skipping breakfast if we are talking about in terms of the differences on a metabolic level.

This happens when people undergo a ketogenic diet, which  somewhat mimics the effects of starvation. The main principle of such a diet is a very low consumption of carbs. Considering it has been shown to be strongly neuroprotective and beneficial for different cognitive measures in children and in studies of Alzheimer’s, it could explain why those who ate a fatty breakfast had performed better.

 

Bullet points

  • In different types of children (malnourished, well-nourished, higher, average, and lower IQ etc.), there were different observed effects after eating breakfast.
  • These effects included problem solving, comprehension, generation of ideas and visual and auditory short-term memory, executive functioning, spatial problem solving, psychomotor functioning, speed of processing, visual attention, visual learning, and memory and attention – depending on the type of children assessed.
  • Young adults who ate a fatty breakfast had better results on cognitive tests.
  • Possible mechanisms for this are the mimicked effects of starvation that leave you with a consistent metabolic condition when you eat a fatty breakfast.

References: [1, 2, 3, 4]

About Author

Sebastijan Veselic

BSc in Psychology, currently doing a MSc in Cognitive science. Pursuing and interested in many academic and scientific disciplines and topics, as well as some less so. These include, but are not limited to, cute cats on the internet.

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