The role of breakfast and a mid-morning snack on the ability
of children to concentrate at school
David Benton⁎, Megan Jarvis
Department of Psychology, University of Wales Swansea, Swansea SA2 8PP, Wales, UK
Received 28 March 2006; received in revised form 20 September 2006; accepted 25 September 2006
The effect on the ability of children to attend to their school work, of the size of breakfast and whether a mid-morning snack had been
consumed, was considered. Nine year old children were studied for four days. They reported what they had eaten for breakfast and days when they
either had or had not eaten a mid-morning snack were contrasted. For an hour in the late morning, while performing individual work, activity
sampling was used to establish the time spent on task. Those who had eaten a small breakfast, on average 61 kcal, spent significantly less time
attending to their work than those who had eaten larger meals. The adverse effect of a small breakfast was reversed by the consumption of a mid-
© 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Attention; Breakfast; Snack
When Pollitt and Mathews  summarized the literature on
the influence ofbreakfastoncognitiontheyfoundthatnodefinite
conclusion was justified. They did, however, find that the data
strongly suggested that omitting breakfast interferes with cog-
nition and learning, an effect that was more pronounced in
are unclear and there has been little attempt to consider the nature
of breakfast, particularly in western countries.
In fact in industrialized as opposed to developing countries,
there have been few studies of the influence of breakfast on
children and those that have been conducted have mainly con-
trasted breakfast withfasting.In 12year olds, the breakfast cereal
Frosties, when compared with fasting, improved memory but
fasting enhanced cognitive performance . In 12 year olds,
eating either the breakfast cereals Shreddies or Cheerios reduced
the decline in attention and memory that occurred after 3 h when
children fasted or consumed a glucose drink . In Sweden ten
year old school children who ate larger breakfasts exercised for
longer in a morning gymnastics class. The eating of a larger
breakfast was also associated with better performance on a test of
verbal fluency .
Snacking, in a world where obesity is a growing problem,
tends to have a bad name. Yetin young adultsa breakfast highin
carbohydrate (50 g) was associated with poorer mood in the late
morning, a reaction that was not observed if a mid-morning
snack was eaten or a smaller breakfast (10 g carbohydrate) was
on behaviour of the size of breakfast and its interaction with a
children than in adults . The larger size of a child's brain
relative to the rest of the body, and the more limited stores of
energy, suggested that junior-school children may be particu-
larly responsive to the nature of their meals. Thus the present
study considered the effect on a child's ability to attend to their
school work of the size of breakfast and a mid-morning snack.
Twenty children, half male and half female, aged on average
Physiology & Behavior 90 (2007) 382–385
⁎Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 1792 295607; fax: +44 1792 295679.
E-mail address: email@example.com (D. Benton).
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what they had consumed at home for breakfast. Randomly the
childrenweredivided intotwo groupsoften.Duringthe morning
break, at 1045, half the children ate a muesli snack bar, and half
second group on days two and three. From 1115 to 1215 the
children were observed while independently carrying out nu-
meracy work that they were asked to complete while seated at a
3. Activity sampling
At precisely five second intervals the behaviour of a child
was observed and classified, so that every 2 min each child was
rated, and over an hour was observed on thirty occasions. The
timing of observations was dictated by a tone heard via an
earphone. From such a record the percentage of total observa-
tions, and hence the time spent performing a series of be-
haviours, was established. Behaviour was classified as falling
into one of five categories.
2) Distracted — looking around class, talking to neighbour,
3) Disruptive behaviour — negative social interactions of a
verbal or physical nature.
4) Interacting with teacher — hand in air or asking work related
5) Out of chair — walking around (the task required sitting at
The data were collapsed to create the time on task, that is
behaviour one and behaviour four were added together.
Each muesli bar offered 950 kJ (226 kcal), 35 g carbohydrate,
2.5 g protein and 1 g of fat (Kellogg's, Manchester, England).
On arrival in school children were asked what they had eaten
for breakfast and for some indication of portion size. Based on
food tables , manufacturers' information and standard
portion sizes , estimates were made of the nutritional
composition of the breakfasts. As these meals tended to be
consistent from day to day an average nutritional composition
of breakfast, over four days, was calculated for each child. In
terms of energy intake children eating breakfasts falling into the
smallest, middle and greatest thirds were distinguished.
Large/medium/small breakfast×Group (snack on days 1, 4/days
2, 3)×Snack/no snack×First/second day of observation×Time
(six ten minute blocks) with the last three as repeated measures
factors. When the results are reported where higher order inter-
actions are not reported it can be assumed that they are non-
Overall there was no difference between the time spent on
task when snacks were or were not consumed. To consider
whether the size of breakfast might influence the reaction to the
mid-morning snack, arbitrarily the sample was divided into
thirds on the basis of the energy provided by breakfast. Those
consuming less than 150 kcal, from 151 to 230 kcal, and over
230 kcalwerecompared. Table 1 describes thenutritionalnature
of the breakfasts in these three groups.
When the size of the breakfast was considered the interaction
Size of breakfast×Snack consumption reached significance
(F(2,14)=4.62, pb0.03). Fig. 1 illustrates the interaction.
The time spent on task in those who had eaten the smallest
breakfast was significantly different greater when a snack had
sized or larger breakfasts were not influenced by the snack. On
of less than 150 kcal spend significantly less time on task than
those who had eaten a larger meal ( pb0.03). The effect of the
was considered did not significantly influence the finding. The
influence was observed throughout the hour of testing.
The nutritional composition of breakfast
Breakfastkcal (kJ) Carbohydrate (g)Fat (g)Protein (g)
12.6+/−3.6 1.0+/−0.5 1.1+/−0.6
N230 kcal41.2+/−6.8 6.1+/−1.39.4+/−2.9
The data are means+/−S.E.
Fig. 1. The influence of breakfast and mid-morning snacks on the time spent on
task.The dataare the averagenumber of times, out offivein a ten minuteperiod,
that the child spent on task. In those who consumed less than 150 kcal there was
a significant difference between the occasions when they did and did not eat a
mid-morning snack ( pb0.03).
383 D. Benton, M. Jarvis / Physiology & Behavior 90 (2007) 382–385
If the children were not on task what were they doing? The
major amount of time was spent demonstrating behaviour two,
they were distracted, looking around, talking and fidgeting.
When this behavioural group was considered there was again a
significant Size of breakfast×Snack consumption interaction
(F(2,14)=6.24, pb0.01). Children who had eaten a breakfast
less than 150 kcal and consumed no snack were significantly
more likely to be distracted than those who had eaten more
( pb0.01). In those who had consumed the smallest breakfasts
being distracted ( pb0.03).
Received wisdom has been that the efficiency of homeostatic
mechanisms ensures that the functioning of the brain is rarely
susceptible to dietary induced changes in the level of blood
glucose. More recently it has become apparent that both mood
 and memory  can be susceptible to a glucose containing
drink, although the underlying mechanism is a matter for de-
bate: potentially both central and peripheral mechanisms may
be important. As a glucose drink produces a large but short-
lived increase in blood glucose levels, it is important that the
nature of the diet has also been shown to influence cognition in
young adults [3,6,15]. There is also a growing number of
reports that memory is influenced adversely by missing
breakfast, an effect that can be reversed by a glucose containing
Although breakfast has been reportedto improve memoryand
mood the literature on the impact of snacks on cognition is very
limited. In the afternoon, a glucose containing drink rather than a
was significantly longer when the participants consumed
confectionery rather than a non-caloric snack. The confectionery
snack enhanced the ability to sustain attention . Similarly in
adults there are reports that the eating of candy decreased tired-
nessinthe afternoonand thata snack improvedmemoryand
driving simulator, the consumption of chocolate resulted in more
careful driving in the second hour .
containing 50 g carbohydrate was associated with poorer mood
later in the morning, a response reversed by a mid-morning
snack. In contrast a small breakfast of 10 g carbohydrate did not
result in a poorer mood in the late morning . In these young
50 gcarbohydrate mood declined, a responsethat was prevented
by a mid-morning snack.
The present findings also found an interaction between the
nature of breakfast and a subsequent snack, although the pattern
was different. In the present sample of children those that
benefited from a snack had eaten a small breakfast (Fig. 1).
There was no child who came to school without any energy
intake, although those who subsequently benefited from a snack
had eaten or drunk little; for example an apple or a biscuit, on
average 61 kcal of which 12.6 g were carbohydrate (Table 1).
The effect of this intake contrasted with the similar study of
adults  in whom a small meal (51 kcal, 10 g carbohydrate)
produced a more positive mood than a larger breakfast
(253 kcal, 51 g carbohydrate).
Although too much should not be read into a comparison
between a single study of children and a single study of adults,
there are reasons to suggest that the brains response to diet may
differ with age. The brain represents a relatively higher pro-
portion of body weight in the child. In addition, for a given
amount of tissue, the use of glucose by the brain is greater in
children . Chugani  reviewed the literature dealing with
cerebral glucose utilization during childhood. From birth to
four years the rate of glucose utilization by brain tissue
increases markedly, to the extent that by four years it is twice
that of the adult brain. This high rate of glucose utilization
remains until 9–10 years. These observations from the use of
PETscans have parallels in the increased rate of blood flow in a
child's rather than an adult's brain and the higher use of oxygen.
Cerebral metabolic rate then declines from the age of nine to ten
to reach adult values by sixteen to eighteen years of age. Thus
the child's brain is both relatively bigger and more active than
the adult's, suggesting that children may be particularly
responsive to the nature and amount of carbohydrate in their
meals and the frequency of eating. Thus if the dietary provision
of glucose can modulate neural functioning then pre-teenage
children maybe particularly susceptible, although future studies
should contrast children of different ages and breakfasts of
different sizes, looking for the interaction with a subsequent
There are two well established trends. Over the decades the
overall number of people choosing not to eat breakfast has
increased. Secondly the number choosing to avoid the meal
increases with age in any particular cohort , that is the
decision not to eat breakfast occurs at all ages although it is less
common in younger children. The rate of not eating breakfast
increases steadily from ages five to ten years, such that about
10% of those aged about ten years choose not to eat the meal.
During teenage years the numbers not eating breakfast increase
further so that about a third of those in their late teens avoid the
meal [16,18]. Given the evidence that the ability to attend to
schooling benefits from eating breakfast (Fig. 1), parents should
encourage their children to consume this meal. Realistically it
may on occasions prove impossible to ensure the eating of
breakfast and in this context the consumption of appropriate
mid-morning snacks should be encouraged, although questions
concerning the optimal composition of snacks have been vir-
Although it is too early to more than speculate it may be that
the optimal dietary pattern for children is to eat a little and often.
The problem is that there is a risk that if snacking proved
desirable for children at particular ages, with a particular nut-
ritional style, then little and often may become a lot and often,
with consequences for the development of obesity. A problem
with snacks is that in many cases they are high in fat such that
effort will be needed to establish suitable snacks that satisfy
criteria from both a psychological and medical perspective.
384 D. Benton, M. Jarvis / Physiology & Behavior 90 (2007) 382–385
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