Do you skip breakfast? I confess that when I’m under pressure and in a rush, I do. But hey; I’m an adult and can make my own decisions. However, what I hadn’t realised until I read a recent report (1) was that missing breakfast – along with irregular sleep patterns – appears to be one of the main factors for an increasing number of children becoming dangerously overweight.
According to Professor Yvonne Kelly, from University College London (UCL), who lead the research: “This study shows that disrupted routines − exemplified by irregular sleeping patterns and skipping breakfast − could influence weight gain through increased appetite and the consumption of energy-dense foods”.
Her team showed that children who do not have a regular bedtime or who get too little sleep are at risk of gaining excess weight. Being born to a mother who smokes is another important factor in predicting whether a child will become overweight or obese.
Commenting on this study, Alison Tedstone, the chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: “Skipping breakfast can be an indicator of a poor diet, which can predispose to weight gain. It’s important that families make health choices, including for breakfast. This is why we’re working with the food and drink industry to make the food children eat healthier, starting off with reducing some of the sugar content.”
In related news, the latest statistics on child obesity have also just been released (2).
These new stats show that obesity is rising among children in England both in their first and last years at primary school.
Overall, 9.3% of four- and five-year-olds in primary reception class in England in 2015-16 were classed as obese; up from 9.1% the previous year, according to the national child measurement programme (NCMP).
The number of obese 10- and 11-year-olds in their last primary school year also rose from 19.1% to 19.8% last year – nearly one in five.
One of the conclusions reached by Professor Kelly and her team in the UCL study was that greater intervention in a child’s early life is needed to try to alter their environment and reduce the chances of them becoming overweight. It really does seem to be the case that good nutritional habits need to be developed early, since these are then more likely to be carried through into adulthood. I suspect the same can be said for exercise, too.
Yet with so much conflicting dietary information everywhere you look these days, just what should parents do and whose advice should they follow?
Look no further than the Children’s Food Trust (3). Who are they? In their own words:
“We’re the charity sharing the skills, knowledge and confidence to cook from scratch, helping anyone who provides food for children to do a great job and encouraging industry to help families make better food choices. We believe every child has a right to nutritious food. When children eat better, they do better. We do what we do because by getting children eating well today, we’re creating the healthier adults of tomorrow”.
Their website is a mine of information (http://www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/) and the Trust provides some tremendous free resources.
Unsurprisingly, there is a strong emphasis on breakfast and breakfast clubs in their literature. According to the Trust: “new research shows that children in schools offering free breakfasts to every pupil made up to two months more progress in class, compared with their peers in schools that didn’t offer breakfast clubs.
We’ve known ever since our own research on breakfast clubs in London back in 2008 that the simple act of making sure a child has a decent breakfast before school can help improve their behaviour and their results in class.
This new study, of far bigger scale, builds the evidence for investing in breakfast clubs to help address inequalities and give every child every chance at school. Added to the similar results we saw in national pilots of free lunches for all children, the link between good food and helping every child reach their potential is becoming ever more clear.
Making sure children eat well during the school day can often feel like such an obvious requirement, so obvious that it doesn’t need external support. Yet we know too many children are arriving at school on an empty stomach, or after little more than a bag of crisps or an energy drink. Sometimes lunch is no more than last night’s takeaway leftovers, or a fat-laden pasty from the shop over the road from school over lunchtime. But how can we expect children to reach their potential if they’re loading up on empty calories which leave them tired and hungry again very quickly?
I really like what the Children’s Food Trust is trying to do. If you’re a parent wondering about breakfast, packed lunches, eating out, allergies, fussy eaters, cooking together − you name it − have a look at their website and simply click on the resources tab (marked ‘parents’) and most of your questions will be answered. As hard as it might be some times, we really should be making every effort to provide our children with a breakfast that fuels their future.