Estimates vary, but around 25% of Americans skip breakfast on a regular basis. The potential perils include a more sluggish metabolism as the body shifts into starvation-response mode. And coupled with a tendency to become ravenous and binge later: weight gain. Cognitive abilities can also suffer: you may get headaches, feel fatigued and be less able to concentrate.

Yet plenty of people bypass breakfast and don’t seem to suffer. Many—perhaps your clients—say they aren’t hungry. And some even rev up by working out without fueling first in the belief that they’ll burn more fat that way.

So what’s the truth? Is skipping breakfast harmful, or have the dangers been overhyped?

Breakfast to Fuel and Nourish

What many people fail to consider is that the body awakes in an energy-deprived state. Depending on when dinner or the last evening snack was consumed, a person may have gone 10–15 hours without food. Normally, the body gets energy from fat and carbohydrates. Glucose, or sugar from carbohydrates, is needed to metabolize fat and is the exclusive fuel source for the brain and red blood cells. The liver’s stored glycogen supplies the body with glucose throughout the night.

Breakfast not only provides readily available calories for morning activity; it is also integral to obtaining essential nutrients. Protein is needed for muscle building and repair, as well as for other functions, including maintenance of hormones and enzymes.

One reason why the body doesn’t function optimally on one meal a day is that the body usually doesn’t absorb 100% of a nutrient when it is consumed. So eating several meals can help the body use more of the nutrients it gets from food. Additionally, breakfast can help ensure an adequate day’s supply of fiber, as well as vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.

What Counts as Breakfast?

Does a black coffee with 1 teaspoon of sugar (15 calories) count? What about a 50-calorie apple? Is a doughnut okay? Is eating at 10:00 am as nourishing as eating at 7:00 am?

Breakfast means literally breaking the food fast that has occurred since the last evening meal. But how many calories are needed to qualify as “breakfast” and exactly when they are required are debatable questions. Some studies measure breakfast as an absolute calorie amount. Others quantify it by describing the percentage of breakfast calories compared to the total day’s intake.

Ideally, the morning meal should provide carbohydrates and fiber from fruits, vegetables and/or beans, as well as protein from low-fat milk or yogurt, eggs or plant sources such as nuts, beans and whole grains.

As for a doughnut, Sunday-morning pancakes or pastries at breakfast work events, they may be acceptable under certain circumstances. But keeping a stash of easy breakfast backups, like breakfast bars, nuts or even cold leftovers, can give you more nutritious choices so that you’re not just filling up on empty calories. Don’t be afraid to get creative: some cultures eat soups for breakfast, and others eat beans (on toast or in bean burritos). Aim for a breakfast that provides energy and nutrients and that helps you feel satiated.

For more information, please see the complete article, “Build a Better Breakfast,” in the online IDEA Library or in June 2011 IDEA Fitness Journal.

Breakfast Choices

Poor Breakfast Choices: doughnut or pastry; croissant; pancakes; white bagel; black coffee; sugary cereal with milk.

Better Breakfast Choices: muffin with extra fiber; breakfast/protein bar; whole-grain pancakes, easy on the syrup; whole-grain bagel; coffee with milk and sugar ; high-fiber cereal with added fruit and nuts plus milk or soymilk.

Best Breakfast Choices: oatmeal or other hot-cooked grain cereal like Kashi® with added fruit and nuts; high-fiber, whole-grain cereal with milk, almond milk or soymilk, topped with fruit and nuts; whole-grain pancakes topped with unsweetened applesauce and fresh fruit; whole-grain toast topped with avocado, peanut butter or hummus; fruit with yogurt and coffee with milk or soymilk; regular or egg-white omelet with added vegetables or beans.