Breakfast is the most predictable. Pick up a menu at almost any diner and the choices are pretty much the same. At home, we sit down to the same bowl of cereal or pop another bagel into the toaster.
Yet somehow the morning meal manages to spark ongoing debate. Evidence suggests that skipping it, as some 31 million Americans do every day, sabotages your health. But what passes for breakfast in most households isn't much better—if your day-starter is nothing more than a sticky pastry, for example, you could be forgiven for abstaining until lunch.
Here's the catch: Breakfast does more than simply provide the day's first dose of calories. It also kick-starts your metabolism, regulates your weight, supercharges your riding—and can even lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes. In fact, experts say breakfast wields more authority over your body's systems than any other meal.
"By the time you wake up, you're in a fasted state," explains Cara A. Marrs, RD, a nutritionist and endurance athlete in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. For 6 to 12 hours—a long stretch, given that most people eat every four hours while awake—you ingest no energy. Yet your body is hard at work rebuilding muscle and processing the information you took in during the day. It powers these efforts by tapping into your stored energy. But by morning you're operating on a calorie deficit—and your brain takes the hit.
Studies show that fueling up in the morning improves mental acuity and coordination. "It fuels your body and your brain," says Roberta Anding, RD, director of sports nutrition at Texas Children's Hospital. "That lets you make smart decisions and react quickly on a ride." Conversely, research has shown that not eating breakfast can dim your mood and mental function.
When it comes to weight control, the role of breakfast is complicated. Skipping it has been associated with a higher risk for obesity. But according to a recent Cornell University study, some people who passed on the morning meal actually consumed 400 fewer calories by day's end. However, that savings doesn't always translate to weight loss.
"Skipping breakfast can lead to a decrease in your ability to burn calories efficiently because your body is used to conserving energy stores," says Marrs.