A tweet via @Vaughnbell yesterday shared this paper, and I just couldn't let it go by. Sigh. So very much to blog, so very little time.
I don't know how you all feel about breakfast, but for Sci, it's a little essential. I NEED it. If I don't get breakfast by 10am I am a ravening hunger beast appeased only by large amounts of coffee and Snickers. In fact, even WITH breakfast this happens. There's just no way to really be sure.
I wasn't always this way. In fact, in middle school and high school, you were lucky if I also ate LUNCH. No breakfast, no lunch. Yeah, by the end of the day I often had no energy, was grumpy, and no fun to be around. But I was also a teenager, so I have to figure most people didn't notice anything. In fact, it wasn't until grad school that I began to really comprehend the importance of having something with the coffee in the morning. It made me feel better, gave me higher energy...and it even made me a little sharper.
But now I look back upon my breakfast-less ways with suspicion. Could they have hurt more than my energy? Could I have missed out on something important?! Was a little lady-Einstein just SITTING in my head waiting to get out, and I will never know because my breakfast...CHANGED MY BRAIN?
Taki et al. "Breakfast Staple Types Affect Brain Gray Matter Volume and Cognitive Function in Healthy Children" PLoS ONE. 2011.
BREAKFAST!! BREAKFAST WILL COME for you in the day and CHANGE YOUR BRAIN STRUCTURE.
I think we've heard this one before.
(Source. Used under Creative Commons License)
(Also, I'd like to all to know that Sci ate breakfast as she read this paper. Just in case, you know.)
We all want our kids to succeed, to achieve to the best of their potential. Heck, I'm sure we all wouldn't mind if our kids were really smart. We want them to do well in the world, and smartness often helps there. We know some aspects of academic success can be affected by things like practice, homework, individual attention, genetics, etc, etc.
But what about the part controlled by breakfast?
Here's the deal. Breakfast is good for kids. There's lots of studies out there showing that a good breakfast improves cognitive performance in school children. The question then becomes one of HOW this works. IQ performance is realted to grey matter size in several other studies and in several brain regions. So the authors of this study took three groups of school kids (ages 5-18), and asked what they generally ate for breakfast. They gave them cognitive tests, and stuck them in an fMRI.
This was in Japan, so the major breakfast staples were white rice and white bread. Rice? This actually isn't unusual, only in the US and other Western countries is breakfast composed of items you wouldn't eat at any other time of day. In most areas of the world, breakfast is just what you have on hand. In this case, their groups of kids tended to eat either rice, bread, or both.
They did various kinds of IQ tests, including verbal and performance, as well as assessing verbal comprehension, processing speed, and working memory. And here's what they got:
The kids who had rice for breakfast showed higher grey matter volumes than those who had bread. The authors of the study related this to cognitive performance, and said that the rice group had higher IQ scores and POI scores compared to the bread group. The authors believe this to be because rise has a lower glycemic index score than white bread. Glycemic index is a measure of blood glucose after you eat something. High glymcemic index scores are for things like sugar, there and gone in a few minutes, creating a high blood glucose spike and then disappearing. Low glycemic index scores are for things like peanut butter, lots of protein, takes longer to digest. It's a slower blood glucose increase, but it'll stay around a lot longer. The idea is that things of low glycemic index are better for keeping your energy and cognitive levels up over the long term, because the low sustained increase in blood glucose keeps a steady supple of glucose going to the brain.
How does this relate to this study? The authors hypothesize that lower glycemic index foods provide better glucose support to the brain and thus better cognitive function, and that these lower glycemic index foods will...increase your grey matter. Change your BRAIN.
How many times have I heard this before. Hormones change your brain. Exercise changes your brain. Breathing changes your brain. Did you know that after reading this blog post, you will show increased grey matter in the cynicus nucleus of the sarcastic complex? It CHANGES YOUR BRAIN, people.
But of course, these are our kids, right? We want to give them the best possible edge, and so we want to make sure their breakfasts have low glycemic index, increasing their grey matter, and enhancing the odds that 100% of our little tykes will go to Harvard.
As you can tell, I've got a few issues with this paper. Here we go.
1) The breakfast was SELF-REPORT. They just asked the kids what they GENERALLY ate for breakfast. These are kids, kids ages 5-18. And I'll be honest, I can't remember what I had for breakfast freakin yesterday. I think the variables in this study would be much better controlled if they provided breakfasts of various types to the kids.
2) They didn't state WHEN they did the fMRI and IQ testing, etc. Was it in the morning? How can they really be sure, even though they controlled for things like socio-economic status, that it's really BREAKFAST that's doing it, if they aren't feeding them breakfast themselves, and then checking them at a specific time point afterward? I think this would be a lot cleaner if they fed the kids breakfast every day for a month or two and then did some cognitive testing before and after, along with the fMRIs. Get some baselines, see if people improve or not.
3) How does this compare to no breakfast at ALL? Many high school age children in particular don't eat breakfast. Does this impact things? Definitely possible to take this variable into account.
4) What about higher glycemic indexes? Sure rice is lower than white bread (most things are) but what about, say, eggs? Another study has shown improvement in attention with low glycemic index breakfast foods in kids. But these were all CEREALS. Always with the carbohydrates. What about eggs? Maybe an egg McMuffin just beats em all. This is a variable that's easy to introduce, as long as...you're feeding them breakfast and not relying on self-report.
5) And speaking of self-report. They studied the correlations only with the MAIN GRAIN the kids consumed. None of these kids were just eating white rice or white bread for breakfast. Many were having protein, fruit, tea. These will change the overall glycemic index of the MEAL and may have a bigger impact on cognitive functioning than whether your base was rice or bread.
6) I don't find the fMRI stuff all that compelling. Ooooh, changes in grey matter. You're going to find that if you compare red and blue Matchbox toys at this point. No, it's the cognitive performance that is important here. Though they SAY they got significant differences in various IQ measures (specifically full IQ and POI), I don't see that graphed anywhere, and the numbers they present in the table of IQ findings actually don't appear to be significantly different (and in fact aren't even listed at significantly different). Observe:
7) Are the changes in grey matter effective because of BREAKFAST? Or because the people who show them are eating mostly foods that have a high glycemic index? And additionally, does this mean we should change breakfast? Or change the whole diet? How does this impact lunch and dinner?
And finally, this study raises more questions than it answers. There is no way to tell if this is really permanent, or how it affects later development. If it's an effect of just the glycemic index of something, it's possible it changes with every meal and thus may not really be heavily impacting adulthood. OTOH, the grades you get DO affect how well you subsequently do in school and beyond, because they not only impact what colleges you get into, but also your self esteem, etc. So, how does this work over the long term?
As far as this particular study, I'm not convinced. That doesn't mean I'm giving up on breakfast, but I'm not going to start angsting over whether I'm buying rice crispies or mini wheats any time soon.
Taki, Y., Hashizume, H., Sassa, Y., Takeuchi, H., Asano, M., Asano, K., & Kawashima, R. (2010). Breakfast Staple Types Affect Brain Gray Matter Volume and Cognitive Function in Healthy Children PLoS ONE, 5 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015213