Do you consider what you eat impacts how you perform when studying and sitting exams?
Focusing on keeping the mind and body fit, healthy, alert, focused, calm and happy is fundamental. Good nutrition and lifestyle habits can support you and make the whole process easier. Below I will discuss important eating habits and foods that can support brain health in the lead up and during the exam period.
Start the day with a good breakfast
Starting the day with a good breakfast. Porridge is an excellent way to feed the brain to prepare for the day ahead. Add berries to porridge – evidence shows blueberries may help with memory and protect the brain from cognitive decline. Another good breakfast is a slice of wholegrain toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Smoothies are another option. Add an avocado for good sources of fats, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Snacks – mid morning and mid afternoon
Adding in a couple of snacks can keep you sustained throughout the day and support memory and mood.
Snack ideas: oatcakes with nut or seed butters, raw carrots, celery, peppers with houmous or an apple with some nuts or seeds, cheese and oatcakes, avocado or a boiled egg.
Always include protein, complex carbohydrates, colour and quality fats.
Protein is needed for brain function. It is involved in helping brain cells communicate with each other. Once protein is broken up in the body the amino acids help make up brain chemicals. These are involved in what makes you think, move, sleep, get up, remember and focus.
Good quality proteins are: eggs, grass fed and organic meat, chicken, fish, lentils, pulses, peas, chickpeas, beans, avocado, nuts and seeds.
Fats are important for brain health and 60% of the brain is made of fat. It aids cell communication and also keeps the cell membrane healthy. Omega 3 and 6 fats are essential fats for the brain.
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. However it is not quite as easy to access the omega 3 fats from these foods.
Good quality red meat, organic or wild can also be a good source of omega 3 fats. I encourage students to eat meat because of the nutrition found in meat can be really helpful for brain health. I stress though to buy the best quality you can afford. Sometimes buying from a local farm shop can be quite affordable, shop around.
Salmon with new potatoes and steamed broccoli, chicken and or vegetable curry served with brown basmati rice, 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. Include apples, pears, berries, citrus fruits, broccoli, beetroot, sweet potatoes, carrots, herbs and spices daily. The more colour you can get into your diet the better. Don’t get worked up about 5 a day, increase the colour and variety of plant foods. Your brain and gut will thank you!
Vitamins for brains
B vitamins are essential in helping make brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). They pair up with broken down proteins called amino acids and contribute to making neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. B vitamin deficiencies can lead to poor concentration, depression, poor memory, stress, depression and anxiety. B vitamins are best when you have a good supply of all of them, therefore eating them through food is a good idea.
Good sources are whole grains, such as brown rice, wholegrain bread, oats, quinoa, buckwheat and vegetables, meat, fish, nuts and seeds and dairy products. If you eat a wide, varied diet you will get a good supply of B vitamins.
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
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.
If you are are low in iron you may experience foggy thinking and low mood. The best source are 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.
Known as the calming mineral. The clue for magnesium rich foods mainly is the colour green. Eat: Swiss chard, spinach, pumpkin seeds, butternut squash, green leafy vegetables, steamed broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Cavolo Nero.
Dark chocolate surprisingly is a good source of magnesium, 2-4 squares with a cup of green, black tea or good quality coffee can be a morning treat during an exam break.
This mineral is also needed for brain function. Calcium works together with magnesium to support the relaxation of nerves and muscles. Signs of deficiency along with magnesium deficiency can be anxiety, nervous, irritability and aggressive behaviour. 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 fast releasing carbohydrate coupled with protein snack like a banana and some nuts or seeds, or a granola bar.
Afternoon exam: Have a brunch around 11am. Try not to eat something that will make you feel tired. Scrambled eggs on toast, soup or salad with lentils or quinoa. If you are really not hungry, keep it light like banana on some toast. Also don’t try any new foods close to the lead up to exams, keep your digestion calm like your brain!
Is it just about food?
No! It is really important to look after yourself during this time in other ways. Make sure you keep up your hobbies. If you like going to the gym, schedule time to do this. Being outside can be beneficial, get out into nature and also top up your vitamin D levels. Find ways to relax. Do what suits you. This can be reading, exercising, yoga, swimming, knitting, singing – the list is endless, whatever distracts you from studying. Connect with people face to face. It is so easy to not do this more than ever. You can socialise while at your desk and not physically see another soul, don’t do this! It is beneficial to meet people in person, meet for a coffee, find a study partner or arrange to meet up at the gym. If you have an off day then stop working, take time out and start again the next day. You need to recognise this and be kind to yourself.
I speak as a nutritional therapist, a student, regular presenter to students on exams and mum of two teenagers. One of my children is at Uni and one just about to embark on Highers. I have breadth of experience supporting yourself or others during this time. I have put all my hats on and hope that you can gain something from this article.