Adolescents’ breakfast habits affected by socio-economic and gender inequalities, study finds

Children's Health

Breakfast is the first meal of the day and is vital for providing the energy needed to start the school day. It is, therefore, extremely important, especially during periods of growth and learning, such as adolescence. Nevertheless, a high percentage of young people, both boys and girls, do not eat breakfast.

A study available in open access, carried out by experts from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Manresa Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC) analyzed the extent to which adolescents miss breakfast, concluding that 19% of girls and 13% of boys do not eat breakfast.

“Our research has found that adolescents’ breakfast habits are affected by socio-economic and gender inequalities. Furthermore, the risk of skipping breakfast was 30% higher in girls and 28% higher in boys from disadvantaged families compared with those from more privileged backgrounds”, noted Laura Esquius, one of the lead authors of the study together with researchers from the UOC’s FoodLab research group (Alicia Aguilar Martínez and Anna Bach Faig) and the GRESP group from UVic-UCC (Marina Bosque Prous, Helena González Casals, Ester Colillas Malet and Albert Espelt).

The researchers analyzed data collected from more than 7,000 adolescents who took part in the DESKcohort project, a survey on social, education and health issues and health behaviors. The study forms part of a special report on the health benefits of eating breakfast published in the scientific journal Nutrients, edited by members of the teaching staff in the UOC’s Faculty of Health Sciences, Alicia Aguilar Martínez and Anna Bach Faig.

The dangers of skipping breakfast

Eating breakfast is vital for energy and a balanced diet, and is therefore considered to be a key component of a healthy diet. Breakfast is also linked to positive effects on cognitive development and better academic performance in children, and is thus fundamental during adolescence. “It’s a key period for establishing healthy lifestyles and setting health patterns that will continue into adulthood”, explained Bach.

Missing breakfast in childhood and adolescence may be a predictor of unhealthy lifestyles linked to excess weight, obesity and metabolic disorders. Reduced intake of energy and nutrients can increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies. Eating breakfast, meanwhile, is linked to positive effects on cognitive development and improved academic performance.

There’s a correlation between missing breakfast and poor academic performance. For both boys and girls, adolescents with average or poor results are much more likely to skip breakfast, compared with those who achieve good grades.”

Alicia Aguilar, Researcher

The researcher pointed out that skipping breakfast in order to sleep longer or because time is short can also be a reflection of other risk factors leading to a more disorganized lifestyle and, thus, greater risks for health and academic performance.

Recommendations tailored to socio-economic circumstances and gender

The authors argue that to prevent such inequalities and encourage healthy eating among these age groups, public policies must be tailored to the socio-economic circumstances of each family and take the gender perspective into account.

The general recommendation in all cases is to avoid processed and ultra-processed foods for breakfast, choosing instead fresh foods based on the Mediterranean diet, such as fruit, nuts, unrefined cereals and fermented milk products.

“A wide range of strategies are necessary to encourage adolescents to eat healthy breakfasts. These may include community policies and nutritional education measures aimed at schoolchildren and families. But they must also be treated as just one of the factors for a healthy lifestyle, including a decent diet, sufficient physical exercise and enough sleep, in addition to being sustainable in the long term”, explained Laura Esquius de la Zarza.

The correlation between economic and social factors and eating breakfast must be tackled in order to ensure that, irrespective of gender or background, all adolescents benefit from specific measures to encourage healthy living and to prevent nutritional and health gaps from widening. “This calls for a global approach, but at the individual family level we need to make sure healthy food is available, and also that parents set a good example in their own eating habits”, said Marina Bosque Prous.

At school, building nutritional education into the curriculum, while providing students with knowledge, skills and good attitudes, leads to the acquisition of healthy eating habits and greater awareness of the importance of eating a healthy breakfast. “Providing advice on how to plan and prepare breakfast when time is short, or rethinking timetables and reviewing the food provided at schools are other clear strategies to encourage healthy eating environments at all stages of life, especially in adolescence” said the authors.

Journal reference:

Esquius, L., et al. (2021) Social Inequalities in Breakfast Consumption among Adolescents in Spain: The DESKcohort Project. Nutrients. doi.org/10.3390/nu13082500.

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