Starting each day off with a healthy breakfast has long been considered the foundation for any balanced diet. Studies show that adopting this one, simple habit, can lead to a number of health benefits, including lower body mass index (BMI), higher test scores among children and faster metabolism.
But having access to a healthy breakfast isn’t easy for everyone. Children of lower income households often don’t have the option of sitting down for eggs and bacon before school. Cereal seems like a natural fix: It’s inexpensive, can be eaten on the go and doesn’t require adult supervision—a major consideration in a household with two working parents.
It takes more than just availability and convenience to make a healthy breakfast, though. Getting kids to eat breakfast may be half the battle, but making sure they’re eating the right breakfast is just as important.
Fortunately, a recent study published by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
takes a look at the association between cereal consumption and a child’s health—specifically fourth to sixth graders in low-income, minority households—and found that cereal is not only a convenient option, but a healthy one, showing a “significant positive relationship between the frequency of cereal consumption and nutrient intakes…”
"(Cereal) is an excellent breakfast choice, it's simple, and gets those essential nutrients that children need, especially low income minority children," the study’s lead author, Dr. Lana Frantzen, told Reuters Health.
Frantzen’s team interviewed 625 schoolchildren as they progressed from fourth to sixth grades in San Antonio, Texas, asking once a year what the children had to eat over the previous three days and calculating their BMI.
According to Reuters, 64 percent of the kids said they'd eaten breakfast on each of the last three days when they were in the fourth grade compared to 42 percent by the time they were in the sixth grade.
With nine days of breakfast analysis for each child after three years (August 2001 to May 2004), the researchers found that kids who ate cereal four out of the nine days tended to be in the 95th percentile for BMI (overweight), compared to kids who ate cereal all nine days, who were in the 65th percentile (healthy weight).
Only 70 kids had cereal on every one of the three days, but for each time they had cereal, their intake of certain nutrients was higher than that of other kids, the researchers reported.
But the benefits of starting with cereal weren’t reflected in weight alone. Cereal is fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals, Dr. Frantzen told Reuters, and the milk is a great source of calcium, potassium and vitamin D. So kids who ate more cereal got more vitamin D, B-3, B-12, riboflavin, calcium, iron, zinc and potassium in their diets than kids who ate less cereal or none at all, reinforcing the importance of sugar’s role in making nutrient-rich foods palatable.
Reuters reported that cereals like Frosted flakes, Cheerios and Kix, were the most common breakfast items, while others ranged from scrambled eggs, white bread and sausage to granola bars, tortillas and breakfast tacos.
Dr. Matthew Haemer, medical director of the nutrition and fitness clinic at Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora said the study served as a nice advancement of knowledge in the importance of eating breakfast, and that while policies like the School Breakfast Program provide a low cost or free meal to kids who qualify, the issue demands more attention and resources.
Generations of kids are still starting out the day without a healthy breakfast and, according to Frantzen, one in every four American children lives in a food insecure household where breakfast isn't a sure thing.
"There's still a lot of science to be done," said Dr. Haemer. "Cereal appears to be part of the picture but it's not the complete picture."