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One specific lifestyle habit that has been studied is breakfast consumption. Some scientists (e.g., Simeon, 1989; Grantham-McGregor, 1989; Worobey, 1999; Pollitt, 1981-83, etc.) think that eating breakfast before school will help students perform better on the cognitive level. Research has been done on this topic because so many people could be helped if eating breakfast truly does have a positive effect on students’ learning abilities and functioning in their classes (academic performance). Eating breakfast before attending school is a fairly easy task to do, and it may have more than just physical health advantages. Past research (e.g., Simeon & Grantham-McGregor, 1989; Benton & Parker, 1998; Worobey & Worobey, 1999; etc.) has indicated that eating breakfast can be beneficial to many aspects of mental health as well. There are some studies, in particular, that seem to highlight this matter of interest, and the results of the studies discussed below demonstrate the supposed positive relationship between eating breakfast and academic success.
In 1989, an experiment was conducted that demonstrated the effects of breakfast on cognitive functions of three categories of children: stunted, nonstunted controls, and malnourished. The stunted children were those whose linear growth was retarded, which meant that the lack of proper nutrition hindered the complete growth of their bodies. The nonstunted controls, in this experiment, were the children who had no growth impairment. The malnourished were the children who were undernourished (lacking the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrition) in early childhood because they came from poor households. The children, who were ages 9-10.5, were divided into three groups of 30. In this experiment, an abundance of tests were done to examine many aspects of cognitive performance.
The first of these cognitive tests were the arithmetic, the digit-span, and the coding tests, which were all subtests of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. These tests were useful because they determined important aspects of cognitive functioning such as attention, math skills, short-term memory, speed, and accuracy. Fluency and listening comprehension tests were taken from the Clinical Evaluation of Language Functions, and these were also very helpful. The fluency test was used to see the children’s capabilities to generate ideas, and the listening comprehension test was a good way of measuring attention, auditory short-term memory, and comprehension. Another test that was given was the Matching Familiar Figures Test (MFFT). This test examined the number of errors made and the time it took children to respond. These are good indicators of problem-solving ability and speed of response. The last of the tests was the Hagen’s Central-Incidental task (HCI), which contained a central task and an incidental task, and it measured visual short-term memory and attention to task-irrelevant information. Although these tests made up a large portion of the experiment, there were some other components, as mentioned below, that were also significant because they may have had an effect on cognitive functioning as well.
It was necessary for the experimenters to go to the homes of the children to obtain even more information (e.g., eating habits, social background, economic status) regarding the youngsters. After receiving all the necessary information and consent from the children’s parents, the participants were randomly assigned to different groups: those receiving the breakfast and those not receiving the breakfast, and they took the same cognitive tests again to see what, if any, effects the breakfast had. It appeared that missing breakfast had more unfavorable effects on the cognitive functioning of the poorly nourished children (stunted and malnourished). Missing breakfast did not have a significant effect on the other participating children. The results of this study indicate that skipping breakfast could have a detrimental effect on the achievement of the undernourished children (Simeon & Grantham-McGregor, 1989). This study emphasized the impact that breakfast seemed to have on undernourished children; however, a review of the research on the effects of breakfast on cognition, which was conducted by Pollitt (1995) demonstrated a wider range of influence.
In this study, the participants were children and teenagers who had to fast, and then take cognitive tests to see the influence of not eating breakfast on cognitive performance. The results of the studies showed that fasting had negative effects on the students’ cognitive functioning, especially in those students who were already undernourished, as found in the previous study. The range of influence, however, was increased as shown in the studies that took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Pollitt, 1981) and Houston, Texas (Pollitt, 1982/1983), which demonstrated that breakfast does not only have beneficial effects on the cognitive performance of the under-nourished, but it also has been a positive influence on well-nourished, middle-class 9- 11-year-old children’s problem-solving performance. The children who were in the experimental group were given waffles and syrup, margarine, orange juice, and milk for their breakfast, but those in the control group were only given a placebo (noncaloric, non-caffeinated drink). The next week, the groups switched, and the breakfast eaters were given the placebo and those who had received the placebo last week were given the breakfast instead. Both studies show that the children who received the breakfast made fewer mistakes on their tests than on the day they did not eat the breakfast. Although it is important to know that breakfast can have positive effects on students’ performance, it is also essential that we know what specific aspects of breakfast make it beneficial.
For example, another experiment exhibiting the effects of eating breakfast on cognitive processes dove deeper to examine the nutritional components of breakfast meals to see which ones had the most effect on people. This study focused more on the blood glucose levels of people who do eat breakfast, and whether or not that has something to do with cognitive functioning. In this study, three experiments were done where memory tests and intelligence tests were given to the participants, who were 33 university students, 16 men and 17 women, and the average age was 21.3 years. Word lists, spatial memory tests, the Wechsler Memory Scale, and abstract reasoning tests were also used. The data obtained from these experiments supported the notion that blood glucose does improve memory, based on the memory tests, but it does not have any real effects on intelligence. The results of one of the experiments did show that when people’s blood glucose was manipulated by a glucose drink, their memory did improve (Benton & Parker, 1998). Glucose is the energy source for the brain and the nerves, which may account for some of the memory improvement (Morse & Pollack, 1988). The irony comes in; however, when the effects of carbohydrates are studied. Although carbohydrates are the source that glucose comes from, some studies (e.g., Spring, 1982/83) show that carbohydrates can have adverse effects on children’s performance.
A study was conducted that looked at the effects of specific types of breakfast meals on cognitive functioning. Spring, Maller, Wurtman, Digman, and Cozolino (1982/83) as cited in Logue (1986) observed that children who ate a meal high in carbohydrates did not perform as well on attention tasks as those who ate a meal high in protein. Spring and her colleagues supported the hypothesis that eating breakfast is positively related to success on cognitive tasks. They did, however, consider breakfast meals that consist of some protein to be better at improving cognitive functioning. The results of the mentioned studies, as well as others, have triggered people’s interest in the relationship between breakfast and academic performance, which is why many school breakfast programs were started in hopes that they would benefit young individuals.
There was an experiment that examined the impact of a two-year breakfast program in certain schools. The focus was on preschool-aged children, their intake of nutrients, and pre-academic performance. The main purpose was to find out the differences between breakfast eaten at home and breakfast eaten at school during the breakfast program. This experiment was broken down into two studies. The first study contained 20 children and the second study contained 19 children. One tested the children’s cognitive performance by providing them with various memory and intellectual behavior tests, rather than general intelligence tests. The children would arrive at school, eat their breakfast, and, later that day, would be taken to a testing room to take the tests. They were only separated from their classmates during free play period, and they were always told that they were going to “play some games” to prevent them from getting nervous about the tests. The second study was similar to the first except for one factor. The second study had a control group, but the first one did not. The children in the first study were just compared to themselves on the days they ate at school and on the days they ate at home. However, the second study has a true control group that consisted of the students who were not participants of the school breakfast program. Both studies did come up with basically the same results: Calories from carbohydrates increased with those who ate the school breakfast, and the calories from refined sugar decreased, which is an added nutritional benefit. The performance on the pre-academic tasks also went up in those who ate what the school provided them with for breakfast (Worobey & Worobey, 1999). This is not the only experiment to involve the school breakfast program. Another study looking at the school breakfast program and academic and psychosocial success was conducted by Kleinman (1998) as cited on the website (“New Harvard Research Shows,” 1998).
The purpose of the research was to see if there was an improvement in children’s school performance after participating in the breakfast program. In Philadelphia and two public schools in Baltimore, which had been using the school breakfast program for four months, twice as many students were eating breakfast. The study observed 133 students both before and after the start of the free breakfast program. The results showed that the children who participated in the breakfast program paid closer attention in class, received higher grades in math, and behaved in a more positive manner. There was also a big drop in the number of absences, tardiness rates went down, and depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity decreased when the students participated in the breakfast program.
Much of the literature gained has supported the hypothesis that eating breakfast has a positive influence on students’ performance in school. Some studies showed that breakfast had more of an effect on the cognitive performance of undernourished individuals than on students in general (Simeon & Grantham-McGregor, 1989). However, the studies in Cambridge (Pollitt, 1981) and in Houston (1982/83), which were reviewed by Pollitt (1995), demonstrated that breakfast also had positive effects on well-nourished people. Some of the studies also explained that the level of glucose had an effect on children’s performance. For example, it appeared that those who consumed breakfast also raised their levels of glucose; therefore, it was thought that glucose might be the major contributor to academic success (Benton & Parker, 1998). Another important factor to be aware of is the type of breakfast consumed. For example, in the study of the impact of the two-year school breakfast program, there was a group who ate the school breakfast and the others who ate their breakfast at home. Everyone ate breakfast, but the school breakfast was the one that was more nutritional and well-balanced, as opposed to many of the breakfasts that the low-income families provided to their children at home (Worobey & Worobey, 1999).
Hardly any studies have taken place that show the role breakfast plays in college students’ lives. The current study examined the relationship between eating breakfast and academic performance of college students. It was hypothesized that there would be a positive correlation between eating breakfast and school performance. In the study, eating breakfast was defined as whether or not the children consume food (does not matter what type) in the morning before attending their classes. The other variable, school performance, was defined as alertness in class, participation in class, attention span in class, concentration in class, mood in class, the frequency of note taking in class, and the anxiety level in class. The objective was to persuade parents with the results of the research to instill good eating habits in their children, such as eating breakfast in the morning, so they might be able to better their school performance.
Ninety-six freshmen undergraduate students from Loyola University New Orleans participated in this study. The researchers from Loyola recruited these individuals. They got class credit or class participation points for participating in the study. The type of sampling used for this experiment was convenience sampling because these participants were easily accessible.
Two copies of the informed consent form (the participant’s copy and the researchers’ copy) were handed out before the study. The testing packages, which contained the survey and an extra sheet of paper with numbers on it, were also distributed. The numbered sheet of paper was provided so the participants could write down the words from the recited list that they could remember in the proper sequence. Scratch paper, which was used to write down the U.S. states, was distributed to anyone who did not have any at their disposal. There was also a list of words (fish, house, apple, light bulb, bird, leaf, dentist, snow), which was seen by only the researchers, that would be recited to the participants. The questionnaire consisted of two parts. Part A contained 7 questions asking the students to rate their academic performance in class. Some of the questions had to do with alertness in class, mood in class, test-taking anxiety, etc. Part B consisted of questions 1-4 regarding whether or not the individuals eat breakfast and, if they do, how often do they eat it and what does it consist of (see Appendix A for complete copy of questionnaire).
This was a correlational study that examined the relationship between healthy lifestyles and school performance. The variables in the study were healthy lifestyles and school performance. In the study, healthy lifestyles were operationalized as eating breakfast. The conditions were whether or not the students eat breakfast and how often they do. This was measured by asking the students questions regarding whether or not they consume breakfast, how often they do, and what it consists of. School performance was described as cognitive performance on a memory test that was measured by the scores they received on the test. It was also called academic performance as well, and it was measured by asking students to rate themselves in the following areas: alertness in class, attention span, mood in class, note taking frequency, test-taking skills, concentration in class, participation in class, and recall of information. Every participant was tested in a classroom setting, and the procedure took place in the same order for every group of participants. The experimenters also made sure that everyone took the memory test at the same time so no one would have an advantage. These were all means of control and helped to prevent confounds from hindering the accuracy of the study.
Upon arrival at the testing site, the participants were asked to sign the informed consent forms that were given to them. There were two copies of the informed consent form and the participants were told to sign both because one was theirs to keep for their records and the other one was the researchers’ copy. The researchers also told the participants to only fill in the address section of the form if they want the results of the group as a whole sent to them. Once these forms were completed, they were collected, and the participants were told to get out some scratch paper. If they did not have any, the researchers provided them with some.
The participants were then given a memory test where the researchers recited a list of words in a certain order: fish, house, apple, light bulb, bird, leaf, dentist, snow. Before the words were recited, the participants were told to try to remember as many words as they could in the correct sequence. After hearing the list of words, they were told to write down as many of the U.S. states as they could recall for thirty seconds in order to distract their attention from the word list. After the thirty seconds were up, the the testing packages were handed out to the participants who were told to write down the words, in the correct order, that they could remember from the list that was recited to them. The experimenters told the students to write down the words on the numbered page that they had provided them with.
Finally, after writing down the words, the instructions were given as to how to complete the survey. They simply told the students to read each set of instructions for each section of the survey because they were self-explanatory. They were then told that they would have ten minutes to complete the survey. They, then, instructed them to begin unless they had any further questions.
Once the ten minutes were up, the testing packages were collected from the participants. They were debriefed verbally explaining that the purpose of the memory test and the survey was to see if there is a relationship between healthy lifestyles and school performance. They were also informed that if they have any further questions they could contact the researchers at the phone number given on the consent form. The participants were also thanked for taking part in the study.
Although the findings indicate that there is a significant difference between the two samples’ performance on the memory test. The effect size is only .13, which is rather low. Despite the significant results obtained for the memory test, there was no significant difference found between the breakfast group and the non-breakfast group on other areas of school performance including alertness, participation, attention span, concentration, mood, note-taking, and test-taking. Table 1 presents the descriptive and inferential statistics regarding these aspects of school performance.
The study conducted by Benton and Parker (1998) came up with similar results to the present study. In this study, it was found that breakfast did improve memory because those who ate breakfast before taking the memory tests did receive higher scores than those who did not eat breakfast. Like in the present study, breakfast was found to not have any real impact on any other types of school functioning. In the studies done by Pollitt (1981-83), children did better on cognitive tests, including memory tests, after eating breakfast than when they were only given a placebo (noncaloric, non-caffeinated drink). Both of these studies (Benton & Parker, 1998 and Pollitt, 1995) showed that breakfast has a positive impact on students’ memory just like the present study concluded. However, there is another study (Kleinman, 1998) that reported findings that differ from those of the present research.
In this differing study, students’ school performance was measured both before and after the start of a school breakfast program, and the results showed that the students’ school functioning improved after the start of the breakfast program. Unlike the present study, the students’ attention increased and their anxiety and hyperactivity went down, among many other things. This study’s findings indicated that breakfast really does positively effect other aspects of school performance besides just memory. The reason that the present study may not have obtained the same results as the one done by Kleinman (1998) could be due to the way that the variables were tested, and it could have limitations.
One of the shortcomings of this present study was that the participants were not gathered randomly. Convenience sampling was used instead because the participants were easily accessed this way, and there was only a short amount of time for the research to be conducted. Another big limitation of the study was that self-report measures were used to rate school performance. In this case, it is not known whether or not the participants are actually telling the truth or if they are just making up answers. Because, it is not certain whether or not the students’ rated their school functioning accurately, the self-reports are unreliable measures. For these reasons, more reliable tests that measure the same components of cognitive performance should be given in the future rather than self-reports, which give students room to lie and deceive. Random sampling should also be done in future research to allow for better representation of the true population. Although this study had many limitations, it also presented many strengths.
The sample was very large, consisting of 96 college students. The larger the sample, the more representative of the true population it is. Another positive aspect of the study was that it examined the effects of breakfast on college students. Most of the past research has been done on younger students, which limits the representation of the population, but the present study broadens the representation. By looking at the relationship between breakfast and school performance in college students, one is able to see whether breakfast improves school performance in people in general or just young individuals. In addition to the strengths of the sample size and the participants that make up the sample, there was still another strong point of this study. The memory test that was given to the participants was valid because it really did measure what it was supposed to measure—memory.
This study has many practical implications that can be very beneficial to society today, especially students. Because the breakfast group did do significantly better on the memory test than the non-breakfast group, it appears that eating breakfast before class can be very beneficial to students everywhere. For this reason, more school breakfast programs should develop and the government should provide more funding for these programs that will help their students both now and in the future. If these school breakfast programs are successful and it is proven that breakfast truly does have a positive effect on learning, there will be less reliance on medication (e.g., Ritalin and anti-sleep agents) to help people function. If people are aware of the positive effects of breakfast, they will be more likely to eat it more frequently, which would help them both mentally and physically. Not only does this study have many practical implications, but it also opens the door to a wide array of theoretical implications.
This study contributes to the body of knowledge of health and school psychology. Every bit of data that we gain regarding this subject will help to further our understanding of the influence of breakfast. The more information collected through research, the more specific and representative the results will be. In the future, there will probably be much more detailed knowledge of this topic, and the true cause of breakfast’s impact will eventually be known. Researchers will hopefully go further to test whether eating breakfast can have even more of an effect on people’s lives besides just school performance.
Although this study attempted to test students to see if there is a positive relationship between consuming breakfast before class and functioning in school, improvements should be made in the future. For example, although a significant difference was found between those that did eat breakfast and those that did not, the effect size (.13) was very small, which meant that other factors besides breakfast could have contributed to the scores of the memory tests. That is why future studies should use more reliable methods of testing for memory as well as for other components of school performance. In the future, the independent variable (whether or not the students eat breakfast) should be manipulated by the researchers to make sure that each person is placed in the correct category. More cognitive tests should be done repeatedly to see if the results are the same each time, which would determine if the tests were accurate and reliable. A variety of tests should be tried out to see which ones work the best and are the most valid. It appears that in the future, our body of research knowledge will be much larger, and we will be able to find out a lot more information about breakfast and learning. The present study, however, does provide a foundation and a start for further research to be built on.
Kleinman, R. (1998, March). New Harvard research shows school breakfast program may improve children’s behavior and performance. Kidsource Online. Available: http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content4/breakfast.html
Logue, A.W. (1986). The Psychology Of Eating And Drinking. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Morse, D.R., & Pollack, R.L. (1988). Nutrition, Stress, And Aging. New York: AMS Press, Inc.
Pollitt, E. (1995). Does breakfast make a difference in school? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 95, 1134.
Simeon, D.T., & Grantham-McGregor, S. (1989). Effects of missing breakfast on the cognitive functions of school children of differing nutritional status. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49, 646-653.
Worobey, J., & Worobey, H.S. (1999). The impact of a two-year school breakfast program for preschool-aged children on their nutrient intake and pre-academic performance. Child Study Journal, 29, 113.
4. light bulb
Directions: Please list as many words that you can remember from the list in the space provided. Try to list them in the order in which they were called out to you.
Part A: On each of the following questions, please circle the choice that best defines you.
1. Before lunch, how alert do you feel in your classes?
Very Alert Alert Somewhat Alert Not Alert
1 2 3 4
2. How often do you participate in your classes before lunch?
Very Often Often Sometimes Very Little Never
1 2 3 4 5
3. How long is your attention span in class before lunch?
100% Of 75% Of 50% Of 25% Of Less Than 25% Of
Class Class Class Class Class
Time Time Time Time Time
1 2 3 4 5
4. How hard do you find it to concentrate in class before lunch?
Not Hard Somewhat Hard Hard Very Hard
1 2 3 4
5. In general, how would you describe your mood in classes before lunch?
Highly Somewhat Neutral Somewhat Negative
Positive Positive 3 Negative 5
1 2 4
6. How often do you take notes in your classes before lunch?
Frequently Somewhat Often Sometimes Seldom Never
1 2 3 4 5
7. During tests, how much anxiety do you generally experience in classes before lunch?
No Little Some Anxiety High
Anxiety Anxiety Anxiety 4 Anxiety
1 2 3 5
Part B: Please present us with the following information about yourself.
1. Do you eat breakfast? (circle one)
2. If you answered yes to question #1, how often do you eat breakfast?
Every day Often Sometimes Very Little
1 2 3 4
3. If you answered yes to question #1, when are you most likely to eat breakfast?
Before School On Weekends Before a Test
Any Other Time? ____________________
4. For the following list, please put a check next to the item(s) that you tend to eat/drink for breakfast. You may check as many that apply to you. Also, please circle how often you tend to eat/drink the item(s) you check off.
Very Often Often Sometimes Very Little
__bacon 1 2 3 4
__bagels 1 2 3 4
__bagels with 1 2 3 4
__bisquits 1 2 3 4
__bisquits with 1 2 3 4
__biscuits with 1 2 3 4
__cereal 1 2 3 4
__eggs 1 2 3 4
breakfasts 1 2 3 4
__muffins 1 2 3 4
__pancakes 1 2 3 4
__pizza 1 2 3 4
__pop-tarts 1 2 3 4
__sandwiches 1 2 3 4
__sausage 1 2 3 4
__toast 1 2 3 4
__toast with 1 2 3 4
__toast with 1 2 3 4
__waffles 1 2 3 4
__yogurt 1 2 3 4
__soda 1 2 3 4
__coffee 1 2 3 4
__milk 1 2 3 4
__juice 1 2 3 4
__other: ______ 1 2 3 4
Results from Memory Test and Self-Reports on School Performance
Breakfast No Breakfast
School Performance Measure M SD M SD t (94) p
Memory Test 4.4 1.2 3.4 1.4 3.7 <.001
Alertness 2.4 .9 2.4 .6 .6 .6
Participation 2.8 .9 2.9 1.1 -.3 .7
Attention span 2.3 .9 2.4 .6 -.5 .6
Concentration 1.8 .7 1.8 .6 -.02 1.0
Mood 2.6 .7 2.6 .8 -.1 1.0
Note-taking 1.4 .8 1.4 .7 .4 .7
Test-taking 2.8 1.1 2.6 .8 1.0 .3
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