Exam success and nutrition

Exam time is fast approaching for many students and now is the time to start thinking about preparing the body and mind for the challenges ahead. Keeping the body fit, healthy, alert, sharp, focused, calm and happy during this time is important. This can be achieved through food and adapting some lifestyle changes. Studying and eating the right foods to help with brain function can be the difference between struggling to focus to being alert and ready to start with optimal attention span and retention throughout the day. Eating for exam success is not unlike how you would eat when preparing yourself for a sport. Similar to sport, the brain uses up a lot of energy when studying for exams.

Start the day with a good breakfast

Starting the day with porridge or soaked oats can be an excellent way to feed the brain to prepare for the day ahead. Add berries to porridge - evidence has shown blueberries may help with memory and protect the brain from cognitive decline. Another good breakfast would be a slice of wholegrain toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon.

Snacks – mid morning and mid afternoon

To keep sustained throughout the day and support memory and mood, adding in a couple of snacks can be useful. It is also a good opportunity to have a break, either in the preparing and certainly in the eating. Eat away from a desk; eat at a table, signalling your body its time to digest.

Snacks: Oatcakes with nut or seed butters, raw carrots, celery, peppers with houmous or an apple with some nuts or seeds, or a piece of cheese, avocado or a boiled egg.

Lunch and dinners

Include protein, complex carbohydrates, colour and fat.

Protein is needed for brain function. It is involved in helping the 100 billion brain cells communicate with each other telling you how to think, move, sleep, get up, remember and focus. When you eat a protein rich food, it is broken up in the stomach into individual amino acids, these are then reformed to make the chemicals needed to send messages between the brain cells. Good quality proteins are: eggs, grass fed and organic meat, chicken, fish, lentils, pulses, peas, chickpeas, beans, avocado, nuts and seeds.

Fats are important and should not be forgotten or avoided. Eat oily fish at least two to three times a week. Good sources are salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. Studies on teenagers and young offenders have shown improvements in attention spans, reading and writing and aggressive behaviours when they were supplemented with fish oil. If you are vegetarian then flaxseeds, walnuts and seaweed include omega-3 fats that are essential for brain health. Olive oil, butter, coconut oil and nuts and seeds are other good fat sources.

Meal ideas: Salmon with new potatoes and steamed broccoli, chicken and vegetable curry, brown basmati rice and crispy chickpeas, wholegrain pasta with pesto made with walnuts, basil, rocket and olive oil served with a salad.

Eat a rainbow

Colourful fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and have a protective effect on the brain. Try to include apples, pears, berries, citrus fruits, broccoli, beetroot, sweet potatoes, carrots, herbs and spices into your daily eating.

Vitamins for brains

Symptoms of vitamin B deficiency range from poor concentration, depression, psychosis, poor memory, stress, depression and anxiety. Good sources are whole grains, such as brown rice, wholegrain bread, oats, quinoa, buckwheat and vegetables, meat, fish, nuts and seeds and dairy products.

Choline is needed for memory and movement, this is found in eggs and fish.

Vitamin D may be important for memory and brain function. A recent study in 2014 found deficiencies in older people increased the risk of developing dementia. Good sources of vitamin D include salmon, dairy and eggs but the best is sunlight.

Minerals for the mind

Zinc - Good sources of zinc include meat, game meat, fish, seafood, seaweed and nuts and seeds. Teenagers may be depleted in zinc because it is essential for growing bodies, it also may be depleted when the body is challenged.

Iron - People that are low in iron may experience foggy thinking and low mood. The best source is in lean red meat, fish and eggs. Vegetarian sources are found in beans, pulses, dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, avocado, seeds and dried apricots. Eat these foods with foods rich in vitamin C to increase the absorption - salads, broccoli, parsley and fruit.

Magnesium, known as the calming mineral. Eat: Swiss chard, spinach, pumpkin seeds, butternut squash, green leafy vegetables, steamed broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Cavolo Nero and dark chocolate.

Calcium is also needed for brain function. Dairy, sesame seeds, houmous and green leafy vegetables are good sources. Bone broths are another good calcium source - boiling bones in water and veg make a good basis for a stock and can be used in soups and sauces and are also a good source of protein.

On the day

Morning exam: Follow the same rules eat a good breakfast. If you have a couple of exams in one day, make sure you fuel in between and after an exam as you would in sport. Have a carbohydrate or protein snack like a banana and some nuts or seeds, or a granola bar.

Afternoon exam: Eat a good breakfast and lunch, something like scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and some greens served on the side and a sweet potato with chickpea and houmous.

 Other tips:

  • Don’t eat anything new in the lead up to exams and eat foods that agree with you on the day.
  • Take breaks when eating, focus on food, be mindful of eating and enjoy it.
  • Caffeine can be a stimulant but can also make you feel anxious, avoid where possible and do not drink excessively; one coffee a day is enough but none is ideal.
  • Green tea may be useful, it contains a little caffeine but also an amino acid called L-theanine and may have a calming effect.
  • Keep yourself hydrated with water – drink eight glasses a day.
  • Avoid white refined sugar and processed foods as they impact blood sugar levels leading to energy dips, fatigue, irritability, poor sleep and low mood.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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