Hong Kong students get better grades with breakfast? Why the link is hard to stomach

Paul Stapleton says a study relating a nutritious morning meal to improved academic performance reveals deeper sociological questions about why some kids skip breakfast

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2016, 9:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 December, 2016, 7:51pm

The recent Chinese University study concluding that eating breakfast is related to higher grades in school helps to confirm the belief that it is the most important meal of the day. News that eating patterns are related to academic performance is useful information for parents, teachers and the public in general. Or is it?

From details picked up by the media, the public learned that children who regularly ate breakfast scored higher on internationally recognised tests than those who did not. Experts, including those who conducted the study, explained this link with the most immediate, and seemingly plausible, analysis: breakfast supplies glucose to the brain, providing energy for the day ahead. Thus, children who ate breakfast were surmised to have sufficient energy levels for learning, in contrast to those who did not and this may have led to less than ideal conditions for learning. The takeaway after a quick read appears simple: make sure your kid eats breakfast before school.

Breakfast is the food of academic champions

Breakfast most important meal of the day, especially for the obese

However, life – and research results – is rarely as simple. In the case of this study, we witness a very convenient jump from correlation to causation. There may have been a direct relationship between the academic scores of students and whether they ate breakfast, but that does not necessarily mean that the resulting blood glucose levels were the contributing factor in the students’ scores, as logical as that may seem. To conclude causation for certain, we would need two randomly selected samples: one told to eat breakfast for a certain period and the other told not to do so over the same period. This type of study is much more difficult to perform.

Meanwhile, it is worth asking why some did not eat breakfast. And this may lead to a more compelling and disturbing cause.

Too poor for one square meal a day

My guess is that the students who didn’t eat breakfast tended to come from poorer families where one or both parents were either missing or perhaps holding down two jobs, leaving their children to get breakfast for themselves, perhaps in a subdivided flat. The study also found that some of the students who scored low had soft drinks for breakfast, which may further underscore this.

Kindergarten costs forcing Hong Kong’s low-income families to use food banks to save money, NGO survey finds

On the other hand, children who did eat breakfast may have come from more stable families that not only had the means to provide a nutritious meal, but also after-school tutoring, not to mention a private room to study.

Thus, the relationship between academic performance and eating breakfast may well be more sociological than physiological. Eating breakfast acts as more of a symbol of family wealth and stability than of any nutritional benefits it may afford.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong