Children who replace proper breakfasts with chocolate bars or carbonated drinks have the reaction levels of a 70 year old by the end of the morning, report researchers.
The new study has provided evidence to suggest that children who eat a breakfast rich in complex carbohydrates are significantly better able to concentrate on cognitive tasks than those who eat a simple carbohydrate breakfast or no breakfast at all.
The study, which is to be published this month in the academic journal Appetite, shows that nine to 16 year olds who ate a simple carbohydrate breakfast were reacting at levels normally associated with 70 year olds after three and a half hours had elapsed.
"Everyone's cognitive function declines during the morning but we found that the rate of decline among kids who ate a complex carbohydrate rich breakfast was only half of that seen among those who ate a simple carbohydrate breakfast," said Dr Claire Pincock of CDR, a research group which specialises in assessing cognitive function, who conducted the study.
The study involved a range of attention and memory tests, for example recalling a sequence of numbers shown on a screen and word recognition. Four groups were tested over four mornings and each respondent was tested for speed and accuracy at four intervals each morning.
On the first test day group one consumed a simple carbohydrate breakfast of a typical serving of a glucose drink, groups two and three consumed a complex carbohydrate breakfast rich (recommended servings of Shreddies with milk and Cheerios with milk) and group four ate no breakfast at all. The groups swapped breakfast conditions on the second, third and fourth days.
According to Johanna Hignett, a nutritionist with Cereal Partners UK, which funded the study, this is the first time a study has been conducted to compare the effect of a complex carbohydrate rich breakfast with a simple carbohydrate breakfast.
"When we eat food we fuel our brain with energy," continued Hignett. "What this study shows is that a complex carbohydrate rich breakfast provides a steady supply of energy which helps to maintain concentration levels until lunchtime."
Unlike simple carbohydrates, which consist of one or two sugars, complex carbohydrates are chain-like structures which take longer to be digested. Hence they release energy more slowly.
Skipping breakfast is a significant problem among 9-16 year olds. According to recent research, 95 per cent of teachers say they have a problem with children who are too tired to concentrate due to lack of energy.
According to Taylor Nelson Sofres, this age group skips breakfast 17 mornings out of every hundred and of the other 83 occasions kids often make do with a chocolate bar or even a carbonated drink - both simple carbohydrate 'breakfasts'.