Eating for exam performance: Boost memory and concentration
Cramming for exams? Flexing your mental muscle over a report? Whatever your focus, the type and timing of your eating habits can see you gain great results. Catherine Saxelby shows how.
Eating well in the lead-up to exams heightens your mental alertness. It also gives you enough energy to deal with those long hours of study and the strain of pretest stress. Now’s not the time to pig out on chocolate or munch on biscuits while you work. Opting for nutrient-rich foods not only builds your brainpower, but also strengthens your stamina.
Enjoy regular meals. Food is your brain’s only energy source, so a consistently balanced diet is essential. The way you eat counts, too. Make time for a proper break: Sit down, and eat away from your desk whenever possible.
Schedule ‘pit stops’ to grab healthy snacks that refuel your brain. These nutritious options are easy to prepare:
handful of nuts or a mixture of nuts and dried fruit
bowl of cereal made with skim milk
banana or mandarin, or other fresh fruit
raisin toast with a light layer of table spread
rice cakes or crispbread (3-4) with a little peanut butter or cheese
hot milk with honey or Milo
Drink at least eight glasses of fluid a day to stay hydrated and offset fatigue. Ideally, you should mostly drink water, but you can mix it up with the following fluids:
clear soup, such as miso
fruit and vegetable juices
Include vitamin-B-rich foods to help your brain and nervous system perform at their peak:
beans, peas, lentils and other legumes
yeast spread, such as Vegemite
Top up your levels of omega-3 fats. For better brain function and eye health, eat these kinds of oily fish at least twice a week:
fresh or canned salmon
prawns and calamari
some reduced-fat table spreads
breads and eggs enriched with omega-3 fats, making them suitable alternatives to oily fish
Eat these iron- and zinc-rich foods for sharper memory and concentration:
lean red meat
fish and seafood, especially oysters
whole grains, including brown rice, grainy breads and wholegrain breakfast cereals
Pre-exam meal ideas
Before you face any sort of mental challenge, have a light meal or snack that provides carbohydrate, protein and a few of the ‘good’ fats. The glucose in the carbs fuels the brain, while the protein and fats keep you feeling fuller for longer (so your tummy doesn’t rumble during the exam!). Make sure it’s familiar food, too — don’t eat anything new or unusual on the big day.
How to eat for morning exams
Have breakfast. Many studies reveal that recall, performance and concentration are better if you’ve eaten a morning meal. Make cereal with low-fat milk, or enjoy multigrain toast with a healthy spread, such as avocado. If you can manage more than this, go for an egg, a small tub of yoghurt, baked beans on toast or some fresh or canned fruit.
How to eat for afternoon exams
Have a light lunch, so you don’t feel drowsy or even nod off with post-meal lethargy. Have a bowl of soup and a grainy bread roll, or a sandwich (or wrap) filled with salad and lean meat or chicken.
Too anxious to handle solid food?
Whiz up a liquid meal. Blend your own fruit smoothie, or try one of the popular milk – or soy-based liquid breakfasts, such as Sanitarium Up&Go or Vitasoy VitaGO.
Plan for success
Take a short break every hour. Stretch, go for a walk or simply get some fresh air — whatever clears your mind and helps you recharge your body’s battery.
Make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. Start going to bed at roughly the same time every night, and get up at the same time in the morning. Your body will start to recognise this healthy routine, enabling you to fall asleep faster and wake feeling better. If you have an early morning exam, get into the habit of waking early for a few days before the test.
Decide whether you’re an early bird or a night owl. You can then schedule some intense revision for your most productive time, whether it’s morning or evening. But don’t stay up too late!
Fuel up with these nutritious meals
Bowl of chickpea and vegetable soup with a small grainy bread roll.
Small can of flavoured tuna with reduced-fat mayonnaise and salad greens in a multigrain wrap.
Spaghetti bolognese made with lean beef mince and grated veg, such as carrot and zucchini.
Poached or scrambled eggs on soy-and-linseed toast with avocado and baby spinach leaves.
Stir-fry made with 100g (raw weight) of sliced chicken breast, or lean beef, with vegetables.
Curb the caffeine
Students often rely on coffee to help themselves study into the night or before a major exam. But how much is too much?
Caffeine acts as a mild stimulant to the brain and nervous system, making you feel more alert and lessening the feeling of tiredness.
Consuming too much, however, can be a trap. If you overdo caffeine, you can feel irritable and anxious. It can also interfere with sleep and leave you with an upset stomach. And once you become dependent on caffeine, you can end up with a headache and feel tired if you suddenly stop having it, which is classic caffeine withdrawal!
As a general rule, it’s wise to consume no more than 300mg of caffeine a day — the equivalent of three or four cups of instant coffee, or two cups of percolated (filtered) or espresso coffee.
Save coffee for times when your enthusiasm is flagging and you need a boost. If you don’t want it to keep you awake at night, try to have your last cup by 6pm. After that, switch to decaffeinated coffee or weak tea, which contains about a third of the caffeine of coffee.
Alternatively, brew up a herbal infusion, such as peppermint or ginger tea. These give you a refreshing pick-me-up without the after-effects of caffeine.
Reams of research prove that eating breakfast can play a key role in your exam performance. An Australian study of students in years five, six and seven revealed that their skipping brekkie adversely affected their concentration. In a separate study, 12- to 13-year-old students’ performance improved alongside the quality of their breakfasts — and a morning snack helped!