Breakfast of champions
The school year has just started. Are your kids getting enough - and the right - food before they set off for classes in the morning?
SCHOOLDAY mornings are a crazy time in housewife Jenny Yong's home.
She gets up by 6.15am to prepare breakfast for her youngest daughter Lydia, who is nine and in Primary 4, and husband Raymond.
She makes a cup of Milo for Lydia, but the girl is reluctant to wake up. At 6.50am, Mum finally drags her out of bed.
Breakfast usually ends up with Lydia downing the Milo as Mrs Yong brushes her hair before sending her off to school. That's all Lydia manages to consume.
Mrs Yong, 51, says: 'It's not ideal, but I make sure at least she has some Milo before she goes. And she eats at recess, too. I have heard that some kids have no appetite at breakfast too, so I'm not overly worried.'
Indeed, when LifeStyle surveyed 150 students from three schools last week, more than 10 per cent said that they either make do with just a drink in the morning or don't eat at all.
And about one in five students spent less than five minutes on their breakfast. More than half spent five to 10 minutes.
This has got experts like Associate Professor Michael Chia, head of physical education and sports science at the National Institute of Education, worried.
'When you start off the day, you want to be in the best position. If you're fully equipped, you can handle whatever challenges come your way,' he says.
Seven years ago, he surveyed more than 100 Primary 1 and 2 students and found that half had little or no breakfast.
He points out that although breakfast is seen as the most important meal of the day - the last meal you ate would have been eight hours ago - it is usually the one which people spend the least time and effort on.
'Comparatively, more time is spent on dinner and more food eaten, although it's at the end of the day when you actually don't require so much energy,' he says.
Dietitian Anna Jacob feels that a child should ideally spend 15 to 20 minutes on breakfast.
But the challenge is more acute for children because they tend to go with what they feel, rather than what is right.
Gongshang Primary student Valerie Sie, nine, for instance, tells LifeStyle that she skips breakfast because it gives her 10 more minutes of sleep.
'Kids being kids, between sleep and waking up earlier for breakfast, they will probably choose the former,' says Ms Lydia Tan, a nutritionist at the youth health division of the Health Promotion Board.
Others like Bukit View Primary student Freddie Choo, nine, say they have no appetite in the morning. The Primary 4 student drinks just a glass of water before walking to school because 'breakfast makes me feel like vomiting'.
'My grandmother used to make me half-boiled eggs and toast in the morning when I was in Primary 1, but I don't feel like eating. After a year, she gave up persuading me,' says the youngest of four children.
Prof Chia says that if a child is still sleepy when he wakes up, eating may not be the first thing on his mind. If that develops into a habit, the body might adjust to the lack of food and so he does not feel hungry in the morning.
Yet, 'if they start eating breakfast, then they may realise the energy boost they can get', he points out.
Skipping breakfast affects the brain's function because it is fuelled by blood sugar, which comes from food that is digested. So if blood sugar levels are low, it could result in poorer brain function such as the inability to concentrate.
There are no major studies done locally on the breakfast habits of children, but overseas studies have found that skipping breakfast results in poor attention in class.
Ms Lim Su Lin, manager of the dietetics department at National University Hospital, says such children have food cravings during the day and simply choose what looks tempting for recess or lunch, which may not be the healthiest choice.
Schools here, however, are trying to do their part by ensuring food sold in their canteens is healthy.
The good news is that it appears most children here do make an effort to eat breakfast.
LifeStyle's poll found that of the children who eat breakfast, the most popular quickie meal was bread - about three-quarters ate this - and the favourite spread is peanut butter.
Four in 10 students also paired their food with a glass of milk, which gets the thumbs up from dietitians as it is packed with proteins, calcium and vitamins.
However, Ms Christine Ong, chief dietitian of the KK Women's and Children's Hospital, stresses it is important for parents not to sacrifice healthy food choices for convenience.
Food like cakes, hot dog buns or sweetened breakfast cereals may require little time to prepare in the morning, but are not the healthiest choices either.
A wholemeal bread sandwich with egg and cheese plus a glass of milk may be a better choice.
Still, it is better to eat something than nothing, experts say.
Consultant dietitian Natalie Goh notes poor food choices in childhood can lead to weight gain and increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol later.
'Starting them young gives you control over what they eat,' she says. 'When your child becomes older, you probably won't have much say.'
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