Eating your way to exam success

Avoid turning to junk food during exam season ©Wikimedia Commons; Image credit: Tudokin

Are you burnt out from too much holiday revision? Panicking over the hours you spent with friends instead of working? Do exams send you into a state of paralysed fear? Take a look at what you’re eating, and see if making the right food choices can help.

Revision is far more interactive than regular work (how many of you would admit to simply ‘getting through’ normal work, rather than actively learning…), so eating well is important for effective revision.

Always start the day with a good breakfast, adding in some protein if possible. Protein helps the chemicals in the brain to keep you alert and energised. Eggs are a great source of protein, and are so versatile that there’s sure to be some way of cooking them to suit you.

If you prefer cereal for breakfast, try compromising with porridge. It has the highest level of protein out of all the cereals, is warm and comforting, and will keep you full right up to lunch. Add your favourite fruit to it for some added vitamins.

Breakfast not really your thing? Try to get a smoothie in first thing. Anything banana-based is perfect for energy, and adding natural yogurt will give your brain the protein it needs. If you’re not a fan of solid food early on, add extra milk and pretend it’s just a drink.

For lunch or dinner fish, like mackerel, smoked salmon and tuna, is a perfect choice. Smoked salmon might sound expensive, but most supermarkets sell smoked salmon trimmings in their value ranges. Fish is full of omega 3, and everyone knows how good that is for the brain.

Food like chicken, turkey, cheese, beans and soy are all serotonin boosters, which helps to reduce stress. Eggs, baked beans, pulses and green veggies are all high in iron, which we need to keep oxygen flowing to our brains. Have your meat or fish with raw or steamed veggies. Veggies with a deep, rich colour, like spinach, red peppers and carrots, are higher in nutrients, and eating them raw or steamed retains more nutrients than boiling.

If you know you’re going to have some late revision sessions in the library, preparing a few meals and freezing them is a good plan. Cook rice, chicken and vegetables like broccoli, freeze them in a Tupperware box, and then microwave with the lid balanced on top when you need it.

Try to eat five to six small meals a day. More food to digest means less blood in the brain, leaving you feeling sluggish. A small meal doesn’t have to look like a meal, think of it more as a large snack. If you’re at home, try rice cakes with hummus or guacamole and a piece of fruit, or a small pitta with a bit of chicken and some vegetables.

Heading to the library? Take a small Tupperware box of unsalted nuts and seeds (full of fatty acids for the brain) and some fruit. Apples, oranges and bananas are great as they don’t need extra packaging, or you could put some berries, grapes or dried fruit in with the nuts. Even a homemade smoothie counts as a meal here.

Water is just as important as food: after all, your brain is 70-80% water. Try to drink around two litres a day, and snack on water-dense food like grapes or cucumber. Salty food can dehydrate you, so stay away from salty crisps and nuts. Don’t substitute water for caffeine-heavy drinks. They might help to wake you up when you’re tackling a particularly boring page of statistics, but too much can leave you jittery and unable to concentrate. Have a coffee in the morning and perhaps mid-afternoon, but stick to water, fruit juice or green tea with honey or lemon for the rest of the day.

On exam days, make your favourite breakfast to cheer you up, concentrating on the food rather than trying to cram last minute facts. Keep your meals small, and eat around an hour before your exam to make sure you have enough energy for the big event. Make sure the meal is balanced, rather than a snack, regardless of what time the exam is.

Finally, breathe. Make sure you get enough sleep, have an organised revision plan, and make time to relax and have fun. Eating the right food helps, but it won't actually guarantee success!

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