Did you know that the U.S. Center for Disease Control predicts that one third of all Americans will have diabetes by the year 2050? This scary statistic is not just an American phenomenon; many Western countries’ modernized diets have led to a diabetes epidemic. The main culprits are what you would expect: obesity and an unhealthy diet. These lifestyle patterns are set as children, and are very difficult to change later on.
So what steps can we take to prevent this? As we recognize National School Breakfast Week, one crucial step is to always have breakfast. Most of the 20-30% of children and teens skipping breakfast may think it’s no big deal, but the long-term consequences of skipping breakfast can be serious enough to warrant a big family discussion. We all know instinctively that eating breakfast is important, and research can help parents convince their kids to eat breakfast — as well as eat it themselves!
Most kids are very focused on the present, and they just won’t be motivated with any talk about health risks decades down the line. But they’re much more open to data showing how breakfast-skippers not only gain more weight, but they also do worse in school. So if you have an overachiever child who runs out the door in the morning without breakfast, show them the studies showing that breakfast skippers perform worse in school exams.
And here’s an important tip for parents whose child is terrified of gaining weight and skips breakfast: children who skip breakfast actually end up more obese than those who eat breakfast! The main reason for this is mostly because breakfast-skippers get very hungry by lunchtime and end up binge-eating more, usually with less healthy mid-morning snacks and bigger lunch portions. Also, because their metabolism is in a partial fasting mode without breakfast, the body stores more energy from foods as fat, instead of just breaking it down to glucose for your brain and muscles.
Adults also don’t get a pass for skipping breakfast, as they get the same slow weight gain as kids do. The importance of eating breakfast was impressively covered in the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health Study. In this fascinating study from Australia, researchers asked 2,000 school children about their breakfast habits, then followed up with them 20 years later and assessed their health. The results were striking; those kids who skipped breakfast all those years had a larger waist — by 2 inches! These same kids as adults also had higher insulin levels, which leads to more diabetes. They also had higher total cholesterol and the “bad” cholesterol, LDL — both of which cause clogging of the arteries and lead eventually to heart attacks and strokes. Another long term study, this time from Japan, followed 82,000 people for 15 years and found that the breakfast-skippers have a 14% increased risk of heart disease and 18% higher risk of strokes.
And for those of you worried about diabetes, or told you are prediabetic, it’s very important to follow the usual advice to have small, frequent meals instead of one or two large meals. Another excellent study, the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, followed 29,000 American men for 16 years, and found that the breakfast skippers had a 21% increased risk of developing diabetes.
The type of breakfast is also important. The main research suggests what is obvious to parents — that simple sugars in sweetened cereals are much less healthy than high-fiber, more complex whole-grain cereals as well as fruits, nuts, and dairy products. Those quick energy bursts from the sugary cereals give kids a quick “high” which just as quickly wears off, and their brains and body are dragging along come lunchtime.
My advice for those of you who skip breakfast because “I have no time”: at least try to have a cup of yogurt with some fresh berries and cereal in the morning. You can throw it in your bag, along with a banana, and eat it on the way to school or work. Yogurt by itself is a superfood with its calcium and probiotics, and daily yogurt actually helps you to keep your weight stable. And blueberries are packed with healthy antioxidants and fiber.
So, the next time your kids are trying to run out the door before breakfast, sit them down in front of a bowl of Wheaties with yogurt and tell them how breakfast helps with better grades as well as better health — now, and in their futures.
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