Research news: The impact of a healthy breakfast for school students

When students arrive at school hungry it can impact their ability to learn (Earp, 2016; ACER, 2018). Your school might be running a breakfast club or snack program to tackle the problem, but new research has found there’s more to it than simply providing food.

According to a new paper in the Journal of School Psychology (Martin et al., 2024), researchers from the University of New South Wales and Macquarie University found that eating an unhealthy breakfast can have the same impact as students not eating anything at all.

Commenting on the findings, Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, lead author of the study and an educational psychologist from UNSW’s School of Education, says: ‘As you might expect, eating a healthy breakfast every day is good for students’ motivation and achievement while skipping breakfast is not so good.

‘Somewhat unexpectedly, eating an unhealthy breakfast could be as disruptive to motivation and achievement as not eating breakfast at all. In fact, simply having breakfast isn’t enough to gain the full benefits of eating breakfast; quality is also important for optimal motivation.’

What happened in the research?

The study ­– funded by the Australian Research Council and The Future Project at The King’s School in Sydney – involved 648 high school students in years 7-9 from 5 independent schools in New South Wales.

Writing about the aims of the investigation, the team say they wanted to address the current gaps in our understanding about the role of breakfast in teenagers’ learning outcomes. ‘With a focus on adolescents in science classrooms, we attended to all 4 research gaps by investigating (a) the extent to which breakfast consumption and breakfast quality was associated with motivation and achievement, (b) the role of motivation in mediating the relationship between breakfast (consumption and quality) and achievement, (c) the extent to which breakfast consumption effects were moderated by the quality of breakfast, and (d) mediation and moderation effects after accounting for the influence of a comprehensive range of personal, home, and classroom attributes (i.e., covariates),’ they explain.

The students were surveyed about what they usually eat for breakfast, and what they ate that morning, and the researchers used the NHMRC Australian Dietary Guidelines to score their breakfast habits. Science motivation was measured according to self-reports, and participants were then asked to complete an online science test based on that term’s syllabus content.

‘In the survey, we asked many questions about their background to help us control for various factors including socioeconomic status, gender, physical activity, previous achievement and conscientiousness to isolate the impact of breakfast on motivation and achievement,’ Professor Martin notes. ‘We were also careful to time it right so we could better determine the process, with the breakfast in the morning preceding the levels of motivation and achievement we saw later that day.’

Findings and implications for schools and educators

Students eating healthy breakfasts had higher levels of motivation and achievement. Those who didn’t eat breakfast, or who had an unhealthy breakfast, recorded lower levels of motivation and scored lower in the test – even if they usually ate breakfast (healthy or not) and had performed well in previous science tests.

‘… it appears that simply having breakfast is not sufficient; to gain the full benefits of eating breakfast, its quality is also important for optimal motivation. Interestingly, neither consumption nor quality had effects on achievement, but they did have moderated and mediated roles,’ the researchers note.

They say more research is needed to dig deeper into some of the findings, but based on this study schools should be offering a healthy breakfast or morning snack to students, include information about healthy breakfasts in the curriculum, and share information and strategies for providing a healthy breakfast with families.

‘Having a healthy breakfast is somewhat within a student’s immediate control and could potentially be addressed either at school or home through better health education and communication,’ Professor Martin says.

However, he cautions schools to bear in mind some of the barriers. ‘For example, some students may decline a free breakfast if it is stigmatised and seen as for “poor kids”, while others may have body image worries or cultural and dietary needs. If we can manage these considerations, starting each day with a healthy breakfast could be a relatively achievable change in a student’s life that has a notable positive impact on their educational outcomes.’

Related content: Professor Andrew Martin has previously written for Teacher on 4 ways teachers make a difference to students’ motivation and engagement.


ACER. (2018, July 31). Infographic: Reading achievement, hunger and tiredness. Teacher magazine.

Earp, Jo. (2016, November 11) Infographic: Student health and wellbeing. Teacher magazine.

Martin, A. J., Bostwick, K. C., Burns, E. C., Munro-Smith, V., George, T., Kennett, R., & Pearson, J. (2024). A healthy breakfast each and every day is important for students' motivation and achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 104, 101298.

How many of your students are regularly coming to school feeling hungry? Have you asked them this question?

Does your school provide a breakfast club or morning snack for students? Is this a healthy option?

What information do you include in the curriculum for all students about the benefits of a healthy breakfast? Do you communicate this with parents and families?