The Most Important Meal of the Day

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Did this image of the most enticingly delicious, absolutely sugar-laden waffles grab your attention?? Good. Because today I want to talk about something that affects me as a teacher, and should also be affecting you as a parent: breakfast.  In particular, I want to discuss the affect that high-carb, sugary breakfasts devoid of nutrients can have on your child’s ability to function at school.

I may not be a nutritionist quite yet, but it’s never too early to make an impact.  This week I got to experience what it was like to positively influence the nutrition of one of my students.  This 5-year-old is exceptionally smart, loves being at school, and genuinely enjoys the learning process.  Let’s call this boy Liam*.  Liam is a brilliant student, but he can also tend to be very silly and jumpy at times.  The key phrase here is at times.  This past Monday he seemed to be having a particularly difficult time sitting still and concentrating on his work.  And an idea just struck me so I decided to ask him: “Liam, what did you eat for breakfast this morning?”  His answer?  FROSTED FLAKES AND CHOCOLATE MILK.

Now I’m not a parent, but after five years of experience educating young children, I know how picky children can be about food.  I also know what a battle it can be early in the morning to get your child fed and out the door in a reasonable time.  Too often this leads to children eating sugar-filled breakfasts in a rush, such a frozen waffles with syrup, sugary cereal, cookies, and at times even candy! (Yes, I have witnessed the mother of a two-year-old girl feeding her daughter M’n’Ms at 8:30 in the morning at carpool). Most parents don’t even realize just how much sugar their children are eating, not just at breakfast, but throughout the entire day.

Frosted Flakes have 10g of sugar in one 3/4 cup serving, all 10g of these being added sugars. But let’s be real, how many of us pour a bowl of cereal and actually measure out “one serving”.  Realistically, Liam was probably having double this, or even more.  So let’s say 20g for the cereal.  The chocolate milk has even more sugar, at 24g! 10.25 of those grams are added sugar.  So before 8:30 in the morning Liam has already been loaded with 44 grams of sugar – this is equivalent to 11 teaspoons of sugar.  Have you ever added 11 teaspoons of sugar to your coffee?  I’ll just let that sit there for a minute.  No wonder he couldn’t stop fidgeting, running around, and was unable to focus on his math lesson for more than a few seconds at a time.  The sugar-consumption recommendation for adults is no more than 40 grams of added sugar a day.  With this one meal, Liam has already gone over this recommendation.

The average child under 12 years of age eats about 49 pounds of sugar per year.

How could this be affecting your child in the classroom?

  1. Behavioral Problems: We all know that excessive consumption of sugar leads to children “bouncing off the walls.”  In Liam’s case, all the sugar he had eaten for breakfast literally manifested as him jumping up and down.  No matter how many times I called his attention, it was as if he couldn’t control it.  And the fact of the matter is, if Liam is jumping around and acting playful, his friends are going to follow suit.  Too much sugar leads to disruptive behavior in the classroom that affects the other children – and drives the teacher crazy!
  2. Attention Span and Memory: Sugar consumption causes the brain’s hypothalamus to release excess amounts of the stress hormone cortisol.  When this cortisol is flooding through a child’s little body, they find it very difficult to sit still and stay focused on their work in school.  Without the ability to pay close attention to the lessons, it is unlikely that they will be encoding that knowledge into their long term memory.
  3. Refusal to Eat Healthy, Nutritious Food: Sugar is like a drug – eating it feels really good because the neurotransmitter dopamine is released by the brain.  The more sugar children have in their diets, the less likely they are to eat vegetables, fruits, and protein-rich meats – the sustenance that their bodies and brains need to grow and develop.  Constantly being fed sugar means that your child will struggle to accept the less-sweet taste of foods such as green vegetables.  Too many times I have witnessed the meltdowns of 3 and 4-year-olds refusing to eat the “healthy” items in their lunchbox because they know there is a bag of Fruit Loops or a bag of chocolate chip cookies waiting to be devoured at the end.  Too many times I have seen these children simply refuse to eat their lunch because they are not allowed to have the sugar.  Needless to say, these children are not getting the nutrients they need.

When Liam told me what he had for breakfast that day, I informed him that I was going to speak to his mom about the amount of sugar he was eating for breakfast.  Turns out he beat me to the punch, because the very next day at carpool his mom informed me that he had already told her what I wanted to talk to her about.  Luckily she agreed with me and and given him something much more nourishing to eat for breakfast that morning: eggs, toast with peanut butter, and a side of fruit.  She was so thankful I had brought it up with him, because – and these are her exact words – she couldn’t get him “to eat anything but that goddamned cereal.”

To say that Liam was a different child that day is an understatement.  He was calm and concentrated, able to complete his academic tasks without excessive interruptions and distractions.  Every day this past week I made sure to check up on him and ask him what he had eaten for breakfast because I could see such a dramatic difference in his behavior.  I heard peanut butter, I heard fruits, I heard waffles made with almond flour.  Such a far cry from the processed, sugary meal he had consumed on Monday morning.

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Ideally, your child’s breakfast should be a balance of healthy protein, fats, and carbs.  Consider proteins such as eggs; low-glycemic carbohydrates such as fruits (berries, bananas, apples), oatmeal, and even vegetables (if you dare!!); and healthy fats such as avocado, almond butter, or peanut butter. Be wary of nut butters that have added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup – always be sure to read the labels before purchasing!

Remember, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but make sure you are sending your child to school fed with the nutrients he needs to function and learn effectively.  Not only will you be benefiting your child’s long-term health, but I promise your child’s teacher will be eternally grateful!

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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