By midmorning her mind was wandering and there was just no way the student could focus during class. The high school senior was in for a physical and telling me about her typical school day and her struggles to stay attentive and on task.
We went over her sleep pattern and then discussed eating habits. I asked the girl if she ate three meals a day, and the teen responded by looking sheepish and admitting she never ate breakfast.
Is breakfast important? Most nutrition experts seem to think so. Yet, in her review in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, registered dietitian Gail Rampersaud notes that 10 percent to 30 percent of American children and adolescents skip breakfast. Adolescents skip more often than younger kids, and adolescent females pass on breakfast more than their male classmates.
Some kids say they skip breakfast due to a lack of time or lack of appetite early in the morning. Others explain that they really value sleep over food, while some adolescents -- especially teenage girls -- are simply trying to avoid consuming all of those "extra" breakfast calories.
As it turns out, those "extra" breakfast calories tend to be some of the healthiest that kids and teens will consume over the course of a day. Rampersaud finds that children who take time to eat breakfast tend to have more "healthful" diets and a higher intake of valuable nutrients.
Regular breakfast consumption is linked to higher intakes of vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, calcium, zinc and iron, as well as a higher intake of that all-important dietary ingredient, fiber. It's also been shown that kids who skip breakfast usually do not catch up on these nutrients during their later lunch and dinner meals.
Of course, breakfast foods vary widely in their overall quality and dietary value. Rampersaud explains that a nutrient-dense breakfast will pack a powerful vitamin and mineral punch at low caloric cost. Such a "nutrient-dense, energy-appropriate" breakfast can include whole grains, enriched cereals, fruit, 100 percent fruit juice (but no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day for 1- to 6-year-olds, and no more than 8 to 12 ounces per day for 7- to 18-year-olds), lower-fat dairy products and lean meats.
For kids who don't like traditional breakfast choices, the dietitian suggests offering leftovers from yesterday's lunch or dinner meals. Children who don't feel hungry first thing in the morning can take along an easy-to-carry and nutritious breakfast, with an emphasis on the nutritious, to eat on arrival at school or during midmorning snack time.
After reviewing the nutrition literature, Rampersaud states that studies that attempt to find a link between eating breakfast and subsequent improvements in cognitive function and school performance are inconclusive, with more research needed.
She does, however, add that research to date seems to support the "positive effects" of breakfast consumption on memory, with some studies also reporting increased attention, reasoning, creativity, problem solving and vocabulary among breakfast eaters.
• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.