The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Children Starting the Day Right—Breakfast with Both Parents

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Struggling to check runaway medical costs, public-health officials do all they can to foster good health habits. Even getting more adolescents to eat breakfast every day can make a significant difference in long-term health-care costs. But encouraging the breakfast habit may prove difficult in a world of fractured families. So suggest the results of a new international study recently completed by researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Missouri, the University of Sienna, the University of Southern Denmark, and the National University of Ireland, results that underscore the importance of family structure in determining whether an adolescent begins the day with the nutritional advantage of eating breakfast.

The authors of the new study begin their investigation cognizant that “breakfast is often considered the most important meal of the day” and that “children and adolescents can benefit from breakfast consumption in several ways.” The benefits of eating breakfast have indeed been established in earlier research showing that “regular breakfast consumption . . . [is] associated with overall dietary quality and nutrient profiles in children and with improved cognitive performance.” Not surprisingly, previous studies have also concluded that “breakfast consumption among children and adolescents is inversely related to body mass index (BMI) and [being] overweight,” probably because regular consumption of breakfast appears “to reduce snacking and consumption of energy-rich foods of poor nutrient density.” What is more, the researchers point out, “regular and healthy breakfast habits in childhood track into adulthood,” so promising long-term health benefits, particularly in preventing obesity and Type II Diabetes.  

To determine what personal characteristics and social circumstances predict regular consumption of breakfast among adolescents, the researchers examine data collected through the World Health Organization for 455,391 adolescents (ages 11 to 15) living in 31 European and North American countries. These countries include England, Ireland, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the United States. 

Statistical parsing of the international data reveals that “numerous factors influence breakfast consumption” among adolescents. But family structure is one factor that receives particular attention from the researchers. And no wonder. “In all [31] countries [in this study],” the researchers report,  “children in two-parent families were more likely to report D[aily]B[reakfast]C[onsumption] compared to single-parent families.” In the United States, just under one-half (44%) of adolescents living in two-parent homes eat breakfast regularly, compared to just over one-third (36%) of peers living in one-parent households (p < 0.05).

With good reason, the researchers believe that “the findings highlight the importance of the family environment for influencing the dietary behaviours of young people.” The authors of the new study acknowledge that the linkage between family structure and adolescent breakfast consumption has appeared in earlier research.  “Other studies,” they remark, “have also shown D[aily]B[reakfast]C[onsumption] to be higher among two-parent families.” 

Still, the researchers hope that their new findings will assist health officials responsible for “planning initiatives that enable frequent breakfast consumption.” The need for such initiatives would appear particularly urgent in America given that “breakfast skipping among children and adolescents has increased over the past decades in the USA.”  

But in light of the results of this new study, it hardly seems coincidental that a growing number of American children have found themselves in single-parent households during the same decades that witnessed a rise in breakfast skipping among adolescents. Until wedding bells ring out more often and the gavel of the divorce-court judge sounds less frequently, initiatives to get children and adolescents to eat breakfast regularly may prove all too futile.

(Giocomo Lazzeri et al., “Trends from 2002 to 2010 in Daily Breakfast Consumption and its Socio-Demographic Correlates in Adolescents across 31 Countries Participating in the HBSC Study,” PLOS One 11.3 [2016]: e0151052. Web.)