How your child’s breakfast cereal is hurting their school grades

A 12-year-old boy who was experiencing daily headaches and chronic fatigue came to see me recently. He had already seen two neurologists, three doctors, a jaw specialist, chiropractor and an acupuncturist, none of whom had been able to help. Along with the constant headaches and fatigue (which was into its fourth year) his mother also reported that his school results were in freefall. He was a really bright kid who was always invited to take part in extension programs, but in the last few years he had struggled to achieve even average results.

At the first appointment I did my usual complete body-system scan and probed more about the daily diet. I quickly pinpointed how little protein he was eating. He had no appetite on waking and, as a result, he would often just skip breakfast or eat a bowl of Milo cereal.

Where is the protein, fibre and fat?

I dug a little deeper and found the rest of the day was not much better. It consisted of a pack of Grain Waves, an apple, a jam or vegemite sandwich at lunch and then dinner was the one time that protein, fibre and fat would all feature, with a red meat, chicken or fish served alongside three vegetables.

To anyone who understands the nutritional requirement of growing kids, this diet gets an F. And yet, countless Australian kids are eating it. I had to wonder, where are the other macronutrients his body needs? Where is the protein that is so important for balancing blood sugars and, when broken down, provide the building blocks for growth in kids?

A quick biochemistry lesson

Let’s pause for a moment to restate something very important: the types of carbohydrates our kids eat matters. A lot.

I have spoken about high and low GI foods in the past and how they are important for blood sugar regulation. Carbohydrates are important for energy. When your child eats that sugary cereal in the morning their digestive tract is receiving simple sugar and uses that as an instant energy source. Insulin is released to pack away excess sugar and convert it to its stored form, glycogen. This helps keep blood sugar levels from becoming elevated. Glucagon is also involved and is important for regulating the release of glucose from storage when you are in a low blood sugar state.

Kids who constantly eat a high-sugar diet can develop hyperglycemia because insulin resistance occurs over time. Insulin resistance occurs when insulin becomes sort of exhausted by the endless work of diving back into the bloodstream to pack away sugar. If kids eat more nutrient-empty carbs like bread, pasta, biscuits and cereals they become deficient in key cofactors for handling sugar in the body like zinc, magnesium, chromium and biotin.

If you’re wondering what that means for school kids, the report card is in. These foods can either cause or contribute to:

  • Fatigue

  • Low energy mid morning and afternoon

  • Poor focus and concentration

  • Anger

  • Mood swings

  • Low motivation

  • Headaches

  • Abdominal pain

  • Nausea

What goes up must come down

The makers of Milo cereal (who are not alone in this) claim that their cereal is made to “help fuel active kids with wholesome energy and fibre”.

But that supposedly “wholesome energy” is delivered via a whopping 21.5 grams of carbohydrates and 8.1 grams of sugar per 30 gram serve. That is a recipe for blood sugar crashes shortly after eating it.

Unfortunately in my patient’s case, the sugar high was subsiding during school hours when he needed sustained energy to support his learning.

The ‘bottom dollar’ mentality
As parents and carers we are responsible for what goes in the shopping basket. It is handy to know that the sales of cereals has been dropping over the last few years. The manufacturer’s response to this? Make cereals that are more sugary!

This makes reading the back of the packet all the more important. If you are not confident doing the analysis yourself, don’t worry. I have. I am yet to find a cereal on Australian supermarket shelves that I can buy for my kids. They are all too high in sugar and starch and are devoid of nutrition.

The sad truth is, if you want your kid switched on in the classroom, supermarket breakfast cereals are working against you.

Blood sugar regulation and academic performance  

Studies have found kids who eat a real breakfast have been found to have improved attention in late morning performance tasks in the classroom. Kids are able to retrieve information more quickly and accurately, make fewer errors in problem solving activities, concentrate better and perform more complex tasks when they have eaten a healthy breakfast.

By eating a breakfast that contains a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates prevents drops in blood sugar for several HOURS. A cereal breakfast will sustain kids for two hours or less. In order for kids to do their best in school they need to eat a macronutrient-balanced breakfast. (There are examples below.)

How to get breakfast right and help improve academic performance

Urge your child to not skip breakfast

The researchers looked at this and found children that ate breakfast regularly had better nutritional profiles than their breakfast skipping peers. They ate more daily kilojoules but were less likely to be overweight and their cognitive function relating to memory, test results and school attendance was better!

Switch over to a good quality protein containing breakfasts

Here are some examples of meals to eat:

  • Scrambled eggs with avocado and spinach

  • Frittata made with canned wild red salmon, leek, chopped broccoli and baby spinach (make a batch in muffin tins and keep in the fridge to grab and eat if you are on the run)

  • Chicken and vegetable broth (yes soup at breakfast!)

  • Homemade chicken and vegetable rissoles

  • Raw paleo muesli (mixture of sesame, sunflower, pumpkin seeds, mixed nuts and coconut flakes) with berries and unsweetened almond milk or coconut yoghurt

Less time consuming healthy breakfasts

It  may seem labour intensive to cook eggs first thing in the morning but making the time to prepare healthy, nutritious food to start the day should be a priority.

If you need convenient, easy to make breakfast options try some of the following:

  • A smoothie: Add in nuts or nut butter, sunflower seeds, berries, avocado, cinnamon and coconut or almond milk. This will provide your child with good fats, protein and carbohydrates to help keep their blood sugars balanced and concentration and focus optimal.

  • Nut butter and banana on whole grain toast: All supermarkets have various nut spreads these days and they along with the grain in the toast help with levelling blood sugars.

And if your child is adamant they want a cereal-type breakfast then opt for whole grain rolled oats and make porridge or bircher muesli. Adding raw nuts and seeds and fresh fruit for sweetness is going to be much better for them than a bowl of Coco Pops.