Food for thought: powering your brain at exam time

05-Sep-2016 09:30:00 / by The Insurance Institute

The Insurance Institute



We’re always looking for ways to achieve the best result possible in exams – whether that’s perfecting your study habits, creating a detailed study plan, asking for advice from mentors at work or getting up a half an hour early to fit in some revision. However, just as you are preparing your mind in the weeks before your exam, you also have to start preparing your body. Long exams are like mental marathons in which endurance is critical, and what you eat and drink can drastically affect your exam performance.

Nutritionists emphasise the importance of adopting healthy eating habits during stressful periods.

The right food and drinks can:

  • Energise your system
  • Improve your alertness
  • Sustain you through the long study and exam hours.

The wrong dietary choices:

  • Make you feel sluggish
  • Make you jittery
  • Make you feel burned out.

The following nutrition tips will assist you in providing your body with the nutrients it needs to carry it through those long hours of study, retain the information and perform at your best on exam day.




Make some changes

Firstly you should identify where you have to make changes in your current lifestyle. If you’re not someone who is nutrition-conscious, making some slight alterations in your routine will make all the difference.

  • Manage your time: Make time for socialising and seeing friends, but you should limit late nights and alcohol as they will severely affect your ability to concentrate. There’ll be plenty of time for celebrations when you pass your exam!

  • Exercise: Getting some fresh air and exercise will be of great benefit to throughout your studies. Going for a walk or a jog with friends will help you relax and get the exercise you need and will allow you to socialise in a healthy way.

  • Plan your meals: When you’re studying you won’t have as much time to prepare your meals so at the beginning of each week try to get organised so that you know exactly what you will be eating and when. Do a big shop so that you have everything you need and don’t spend time thinking about it.


Nutrition tips

When planning your meals, be aware of the various nutrients and food groups that you should introduce into your diet that you perhaps don’t usually eat.

  • Reduce processed foods: Follow a plan which includes plenty of whole-grains, fruits and vegetables and limit your intake of sugar. Fresh fruit and vegetables will provide you with the antioxidants you need to fight off disease and strengthen your immune system.

  • Get some Vitamin C: This cannot be stored in the body so we need to consume it on a daily basis. You can find it in oranges and kiwis, and many vegetables such as peppers and peas and, surprisingly, potatoes.

  • Increase your iron intake: Iron prevents us from feeling tired and run down – which is essential during study and exams. The best source of iron is from meat and chicken, however lower amounts can be found in lentils, chickpeas, beans and dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach.

  • Cut the caffeine: Don’t rely on caffeinated and sugary drinks as energy boosters – boost your energy through your diet. Energy boosting foods include:
    • High-protein foods such as eggs and turkey
    • Fresh fruit (particularly bananas) and vegetables (raw carrots, bell peppers, Brussel sprouts, spinach, broccoli and asparagus)
    • Nuts, seeds and good carbohydrates such as oats
    • Plenty of mineral water is vital.

  • Fat can be good: It is important to ensure you are getting enough essential fatty acids as these will help improve brain function and memory. The essential fatty acids (omega 3s and 6) can be found in foods such as:
    • Oily fish (salmon and mackerel)
    • Nuts
    • Seeds

  • Bulk up on brain food: Other dietary choices considered to be brain foods are blueberries, dried fruits, figs and prunes.




If your exam is in the morning…

Avoid studying the night before the exam – get a good night’s sleep instead. If you normally skip breakfast or avoid eating when you’re nervous, you should still try to eat something. Your brain needs the energy from food to work efficiently and you need to keep your mental focus on your exam, not your hunger.

Do not eat a large amount on the morning of the exam to avoid stomach/digestive problems. Eat a small, nutrient-dense meal like whole-grain, unprocessed foods that are low in sugar. For example, porridge made with water and low fat milk topped with berries or a poached egg on wholemeal toast.

Do not eat refined, processed foods which are high in sugar; this will cause an energy slump which will make you feel tired and hungry again halfway through an exam.

Give yourself enough time on the morning of the exam to make a proper breakfast and allow your body to wake up properly. If you cannot stomach food, try having a fresh fruit smoothie made with fruit, yogurt and oats along with some nuts or a low-sugar protein shake blended with fruit.

Drink plenty of water before the exam as this will help you stay alert. If you are dehydrated you’re in danger of becoming lethargic and unable to focus. Tea works, though with no sugar. It is best to avoid sweet, carbonated or highly caffeinated drinks.  

If your exam is in the afternoon…

  • Take it easy: Try to remain as relaxed as possible in the hours leading up to the exam. Take a look over some notes but don't study; you should have everything covered at this stage.
  • Eat a proper breakfast such as porridge along with fresh fruit and plenty of water. This will help you to power up your brain for the day.
  • Go for a short walk to get some fresh air and exercise. This will help to ease your nerves.
  • Eat a light lunch such as a chicken salad with a sweet potato and a banana and a handful of nuts. Again, ensure you’ve had plenty of water.


Our top tips

  • Avoid brain blocking foods (cookies, cakes, muffins, turkey, starch and protein together and too many carbohydrates)

  • Avoid brain blocking drinks (alcohol, sugary drinks, caffeine). If you’re accustomed to drinking coffee regularly then have a small cup or two. If you cut out the coffee suddenly, you could end up with a caffeine-withdrawal headache.

  • Don’t try new food when you don’t know how your body will react.

  • Consider taking multi-vitamins.

  • Get enough sleep.