Brain food – what to eat if you're doing exams

Exam season is fast approaching, and students everywhere are cramming in as much revision as possible. If you are on the brink of sitting your GCSEs, A-levels or end-of-year exams, spare a thought for how the food you eat could help to optimise your brain power.

Simply making a few changes to what you choose to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner could make all the difference to your exam performance and results.

Our brains are hungry for good nutrition. Essential fats and protein, zinc and magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C are the building blocks to help fuel our brains. If we eat well and nourish our bodies with good quality food, we are likely to feel less stressed, more focused and retain more knowledge.

1. Eat a good breakfast:

Eating a good breakfast will set you up well for the day whether you are revising, or sitting an exam that day. Aim to include some protein (like eggs, seeds, nuts, yoghurt, peanut butter), with slow-release carbohydrate (porridge, wholemeal bread or wholegrain cereal) to help maintain your focus and sustain energy levels. Good breakfast choices include:

:: Weetabix with milk and banana

:: Porridge with berries and nuts

:: Eggs on wholemeal toast

2. Don’t skip meals:

Eat regularly to keep yourself nourished. Skipping meals can leave you feeling jittery and anxious and will affect memory and concentration. If exam nerves get the better of you, and you don’t feel like eating, the make yourself a smoothie by blending a banana, some yoghurt, milk and frozen berries in your blender.

3. Take a break:

Taking regular breaks will help keep your head clear. Have some healthy snacks on hand to fuel your thinking and feed your brain. An apple with a handful of unsalted and unroasted nuts, some cheese and oatcakes or yoghurt are better choices than sweets, chocolate and biscuits that will give you a sugar rush before leave you feeling depleted.

4. Get away from the books at lunchtime:

If the weather is good, have lunch outside to get some fresh air and clear your head. Good choices at lunchtime include:

:: Wholemeal pitta pocket with chicken or tuna and salad

:: Beans on wholemeal toast

:: Omelette with peppers, tomatoes and cheese

5. Have a decent dinner:

At dinnertime, aim to pack half your plate with vegetables, have some protein (meat, fish, chicken, pulses) and slow-release carbohydrates. Something like:

:: Spaghetti bolognese with wholemeal pasta

:: Chicken and vegetable curry with brown rice

:: Roast chicken dinner with plenty of vegetables

:: Fajitas with wholemeal wraps and salad

6. Keep well hydrated:

Aim to drink one and a half to two litres of water a day. Dehydration can affect your concentration, making it hard to stay focused on revision. Set a bottle on your desk and drink regularly.

7. Watch your caffeine intake:

Caffeine is a stimulant that will increase energy, but too much can leave you feeling jittery, anxious and will affect your sleep. One or two coffees or a couple of cups of tea a day is OK. Energy drinks are best avoided.

8. Pack in some brain food:

B vitamins are important for energy and mood. Found in meat, eggs, milk and fish. Magnesium has a calming effect – found in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Omega 3 fats from oily fish (walnuts, chia and flax if you are vegetarian) support brain function. Zinc is essential for brain function and is found in nuts, seeds, red meat and shellfish.

9. Move your body:

Studies show that exercise may help improve memory and thinking skills. Getting away from the books and taking a break will also help you think clearer. Walk, run, skip, roller-skate. Just move it.

What about supplements?

Some people find nutritional supplement can be beneficial for support during exam time. A good-quality multivitamin with B vitamins and a range of minerals could be beneficial.

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 11 May 2019.