What to eat during exams – brain foods for students

Good nutrition is part of a good study plan and learning how to fuel the mind and body helps us to stay happy and focused while maximising learning. What we eat directly affects our ability to learn, retain and recall information, and choosing the right foods can encourage better productivity and academic performance. Whether you’re a student or the parent of a child sitting school exams, here are some quick and easy nutrition tips to help maintain those all-important energy levels and improve concentration and memory.

Eat regularly

The brain needs a regular supply of fuel to keep it working properly and our job as nutritionists is to teach people how diet affects their brain. Your brain is one of your smaller organs, it accounts for only 2% of your body’s mass! But what is staggering is that is uses 20-30% of the fuel from each meal! That’s almost a quarter of your plate. The reason is, the brain can’t store fuel. It has a rigid skull brilliant for protection, but it is a bit of a design flaw, it means the brain can’t store fuel. So, if you are not eating regularly your brain is not being fed. So if you want your brain to function well, you need to give it a steady supply of fuel.

Keep your blood sugar steady

Every time you eat, you determine how much fuel the brain has. Foods high in sugar turn to sugar quickly in your blood stream causing your blood sugar to surge up… and crash back down. Foods that turn to sugar quickly don’t last. Foods that breakdown quickly to blood sugars result in big sugar highs and big sugar lows. When your blood sugar is low your brain and body are not being fed properly, so you can feel tired and find it difficult to concentrate. You need sustained fuel going to your brain so you can think and function better!

A quick guide

Carbohydrates, you need them! They breakdown to blood sugars and provide the body and brain with fuel. Think plant foods – grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes… not just bread and pasta!

Protein, every meal and snack needs some! Protein anchors your carbohydrates so they don’t breakdown too quickly to blood sugars. Think meat, chicken, fish, eggs or full fat unsweetened dairy. Or a combination of plant foods – legumes, grains, nuts and seeds to ensure a complete protein. Think of protein as your anchor. It’s not a high protein diet, it may just be a handful of nuts and seeds, a boiled egg or some hummus.

Do you have some good fats? You need good fats; they are so important for the brain to function well. Fats help to improve concentration, memory and mood. Essential fatty acids can’t be made by the body, you must eat them! Choose healthy fats including fatty fish, salmon, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives & olive oil.

Breakfast is non-negotiable!

Studies show that eating breakfast is linked to better cognitive function and can improve memory and school grades. If you don’t eat breakfast, it’s harder for you to remember everything you learnt at school when exam time comes around. This is because your ability to store memory is linked to you blood sugar levels. Something so simple as anchoring your blood sugar with breakfast before you head off to school can make such a huge impact on your performance in class and during an exam. And we are not talking a Kellogg’s breakfast – you can also think outside the square! It could be last night’s spaghetti bolognese or stir-fry, as long as it includes a little bit of protein to anchor your blood sugars. Breakfast on exam day is non-negotiable!

Make the switch

Junk food gives us a big sugar high and a big sugar low resulting in a brain that is lacking fuel. The key? Making the switch from nutrient poor convenience foods typically high in sugar, salt and fat (think fast food, crisps, soft drinks, instant noodles, energy drinks, cordial, lollies, sweetened breakfast cereals, etc.) to foods that are rich in nutrients. If you want your brain to function well, you need to eat food that is jam packed with nutrients!

Now.. to put it all together! 

3 super easy, super nutritious options to start the day

  • A slice of wholegrain toast with homemade baked beans. Try to buy brands lowest in sugar, with no artificial colours or flavours, or make your own. See our low sugar version here.
  • Overnight oats. Fill a cup halfway with whole rolled oats and half a grated apple. Pour over your plant-based milk of choice. Add big dollop of Greek yoghurt and a handful of nuts and seeds. Pop the lid on top and leave overnight in the fridge. By morning you will have a nutritious (and portable) breakfast!
  • A smoothie, great for those in a rush. In a blender add a handful of berries, half a banana, a big dollop of full fat natural yoghurt, half an avocado and top with your plant-based milk of choice. Make life even easier and keep chopped up fruit, avocados and spinach in the freezer ready to go!

3 quick lunch box ideas to keep your brain fuelled all afternoon 

  • Fill a thermos with last night’s casserole, chilli con carne, minestrone soup or stew.
  • Wholegrain sandwiches, rolls or wraps that include a source of protein like chicken, egg, hummus or last night’s roast beef. Fill with a generous amount of at least four different vegetables like tomato, grated carrot, beetroot, sprouts, avocado, capsicum, cucumber, spinach etc.
  • Homemade pizza topped with lots of veggies

5 snacks to keep you focused while studying

  • Half an apple topped with nut butter.
  • A slice of banana bread made with eggs and almond meal. Check out our high protein version here
  • A slice of sweet potato and coconut bread topped with almond butter or tahini. This is our dairy free, gluten free recipe here
  • Hummus dip with veggie sticks including carrot sticks, celery sticks, cauliflower or broccoli pieces.
  • Nuts and seeds. Make a healthy combination of raw almonds, macadamias, walnuts, hazelnuts and brazil nuts mixed with fresh sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Avoid dried fruit. Keep your nuts and seeds in the fridge and avoid if they taste bitter or stale.

Lastly, don’t forget to drink water!

One of the best ways to improve your focus is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration. If you find it hard to remember to drink enough water throughout the day, keep a big jug or water bottle at your study desk as a visual reminder. 

Best of luck! You got this!