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Breakfast and Exercise: Key to Healthy Teens At Healthy Weights

Eating a regular breakfast is important to a teen's health and to maintaining a healthy weight, says a recent study.

When you grew up, did your parents teach you to have breakfast every day? Are you imparting that wisdom to your kids? I’m attempting to do that with my kids as well and understand how difficult it is to reinforce that message. Between crazy schedules and teens waking up with seconds to spare before school, and complaining of not feeling hungry for breakfast, sometimes it is hard to know just how far to push. After all, we’ve skipped breakfast from time to time, and our bodies are doing ok...right?

Turns out breakfast is not just for champions but for teens and a healthy weight, says the study in the journal Pediatrics. So, perhaps pushing more is just what we all should be doing. 

Eating breakfast = lower BMI

Researchers at the University of Minnesota followed teens over a 5 year period and found that regular breakfast consumption was associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) compared to teens who didn’t eat breakfast regularly. What was interesting was there seemed to be a dose response independent of all other variables – meaning that the more breakfastdays there were, the lower the BMI. And, this trend was found in both boys and girls.

The breakfast skippers tended to be non-white, from lower socio-economic brackets, older teens and had higher BMIs.

The frequent breakfast eaters were noted to be more physically active compared to the non-breakfast eaters. An interesting observation is this study is that breakfast frequency seemed to decrease as the teen years progressed in general, and that many teens use skipping breakfast as a misguided way to control their weight.

Teachable Moment

What we can say about these results is that breakfast seems important. What we can also say is that there seems to be a societal gap right now in who is having breakfast and who is not. This is a teachable moment for public health programs and for educators and coaches to keep in mind whenworking with youths who fall into the breakfast-skipping group. This group is worrisome because they are at risk for obesity and, because they are teens, the weight problem could persist into adult life if not controlled right away. Having a high BMI as a teen is an ominous sign for later adult weight issues, which can lead to all sorts of other problems such as type II diabetes and heart disease.

Important health implications for families

Societal programs and issues aside, studies like this have a number of important health implications for families, even knowing that we need to have more studies to learn more. Now,when your teen says, “I don’t have time for breakfast” or asks “What’s the point?”, you can tell them about this study.  I guarantee that it is important information your teen will be interested in hearing (Don’t be fooled by the poker face you may get in response to your comments. Your teen is very much interested in his or her weight and appearance and is listening).

The points you need to convey are very simple:

  • Daily breakfast is important for a healthy weight
  • Physical exercise is important for a healthy weight
  • Breakfast and physical exercise together seem to be the magic equation for a healthy weight

With teenagers, teachable moments are the best way to help them learn how to be healthy. Long lectures never do the trick! If you have a family structure where an adult in the house can get up with the kids to ensure a daily breakfast, that is the ideal solution. This may mean getting up a bit earlier yourself, but you can use that as a meal moment with your teen.

Other studies have shown great value in the family meal. While these studies have focused on dinner, whose to say that meal couldn’t be breakfast?

In my family, we have breakfast together often and sometimes it can be the best way to start everyone off on the right foot!

Breakfast doesn’t have to be fancy or elaborate. You don’t have to become June Cleaver and start making ham and eggs every morning. The goal is just to be sure that every child in your home has breakfast every day.

Send your teen an e-mail

Another great way to reinforce this concept to your child is to print the study I referred to and leave it on the counter or email your teen the URL to the study. Teens are very “me” focused. If they are given concrete information that makes sense to them, they will look into it and follow it. They are also very likely to believe outside experts over their parents. So, use the experts you have at your disposal: school health teachers, your child's pediatrician, grandparents, and reliable health information websites.

Finally, don't forget to teach by example. Kids do best when they have the support of their parents and you are truly their best role model. So, eat a good breakfast yourself and soon you'll find your entire family more energetic and at healthier BMIs.

Gwen O'Keffee is a pediatrician from Massachusetts. 

Updated May 5, 2011

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