A recent study found that skipping breakfast can be directly linked to excess weight gain in high school aged students. At first, it may seem strange that skipping a meal would cause weight gain. A closer look uncovers some obvious reasons why this occurs.
Waiting until lunchtime to have your first meal of the day, creates a very long window (roughly 12-15 hours) where no food intake occurs. This has an adverse effect on the metabolism, causing it to slow down in response to what is basically a daily fast. The second reason is that most people make up for being hungry for an extended period by overeating during the next meal. They are more likely to choose foods that have higher fat and sugar content without realizing it. Combine the two factors, and it’s no surprise this eating pattern is contributing to the adolescent weight problem.
One-in-four teenagers skip breakfast on a regular basis. On top of the weight gain issue, this is an even more serious problem for a group that is still developing physically. Proper vitamin, mineral and calorie intake is essential for healthy growth during these years. When you factor in the extra caloric needs of active athletes, skipping any meal makes it incredibly difficult to physically function at an optimal level.
Working in a middle school every day, along with training high-school age athletes, has given me a good first-hand account of this situation. Kids list a variety of reasons why they skip breakfast. Some say they don’t feel like eating in the morning, others say it bothers their stomach during school, makes them tired or that they just don’t have enough time. Although few actually say it, social pressure to avoid becoming fat is an underlying issue with many at this age.
Rethinking Eating Times
Many believe it is time to stop pushing the idea of breakfast before school, and start pushing the idea of multiple smaller meals between morning and the end of the school day. This revised approach will address the caloric and vitamin needs, as well as to keep the metabolism running efficiently. It will also curb the psychological need to overeat later in the evening.
A general guide would be to eat a smaller version of breakfast before leaving for school, a mid-morning snack, a regular lunch and another snack right around the end of the school day.
What this does is space out two meals into four throughout a nine-hour window. None of the meals are particularly large, which addresses all of the common concerns.
First, it will require only minutes to eat the first meal before leaving the house. That minimizes the time issue. Second, by keeping the meals small it lessens the stress on the stomach. That is crucial when you consider that students often have to sit in class for almost seven hours per day. Eating smaller meals also helps to avoid the sluggish feeling that comes with a high caloric intake in a short period. And finally, this schedule will rev up the metabolism every two to three hours, which will keep body fat levels down over the long term.
Implementing the Strategy
In order to change the habits of those who now skip breakfast, it will take a joint effort from the students, parents and schools. Students are the ones who have to change their habits and need to take responsibility for themselves. To help enlighten them a little, they should be made aware of the study we mentioned earlier. When presented with this alternative eating schedule, it will ultimately be up to them to choose whether they will follow it or not.
Parents must make the foods that fit best for each mini-meal readily available at all times, including many items that can be eaten on the go. Without the right food items, this plan will not work. Parents also would benefit from encouraging a healthy eating lifestyle and providing any education on the subject that they can. Many teenagers actually listen to logic when they are truly the ones left with the final choice as to whether to use it or not.
Finally, schools systems can have a major effect on the eating patterns of their students. If it is not already allowed, students should be allowed to eat snacks in class at designated times (mid-morning, late in the day before practices, etc). Even better, some school employees could run a snack store that is only stocked with healthy items, such as fruit, cereal bars, healthy trail mix, water and juices. Despite the intense pressure to meet state testing standards, teachers and administrators should seek to find ways to educate students on healthy eating. Math and science classes would be the most logical areas where you can create standards-based lessons that integrate the concepts of proper vitamin and mineral intake, calorie control and other basic nutrition concepts.