Healthy food for students during exams

Sep 5, 2020

Focusing on healthy food for students during exams is not exactly at the top of their priority list. In fact, it is very common for students in exam time to completely neglect their health and wellbeing needs. Look, we get it, incorporating healthy food habits to your busy study schedule almost seems like too much effort for too little return.

However, having a sensible well thought out study-plan, which involves eating regular healthy meals, will not only keep your wellbeing in check but actually optimise your brainpower. This blog post will talk you through how eating the right food and drink can make the difference between feeling energized and alert or sluggish and burned out. It will then give you 4 tips as to what to avoid and what to include when eating your way to good grades. 

Why is eating healthy food for students during exams important? 

The exam period can be a stressful time and experiencing some level of anxiety is a completely normal reaction. However, it is important to make sure that stress doesn’t take over all aspects of your life. 

This is because stress can impact your immune system and to put it simply, you do not want a cold to jeopardise the hard work you are putting into your exams. Stress can lead you to adopt unhealthy behavioural coping strategies, like unhealthy sleeping patterns and unhealthy dietary decisions, which in turn have an indirect effect on the immune system

The time you spend studying needs to be of quality and you cannot do this well if your body and your mind are under strain. Therefore, although you might think that fueling late-night studying with junk food and energy drinks can act as a short-term survival strategy, it comes at a high cost. Yes, unhealthy options tend to be cheaper and faster and thus feel more efficient than healthy alternatives. However, the 10 minutes you save are then paid for with weaker performance in the rest of your study session. 

Think about it. During exams, your brain is working hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. This means that your brain requires a constant supply of ‘energy’, which comes from the foods you eat. What type of food you eat, however, makes all the difference. Cramming in lots of caffeine, sugar and junk food, for a quick-fix can collectively lead to heart palpitations, dehydration, insomnia and high blood pressure. This has an immediate effect not only on your immune system but on your ability to concentrate, absorb information and function properly.

So why is eating healthy foods for students during exams important?

As already mentioned your brain relies on the energy from food to work efficiently. However, the type of food you have has a direct impact on your cognitive performance. Whilst eating unhealthy foods affects productivity and thus the ability to do your absolute best at exams, healthy eating can actually help manage stress levels in addition to giving you the right fuel for your brain to outperform.

How to improve healthy food habits during exams

If you’re serious about achieving top exam performance then making smart decisions about food is essential. The trick, however, is to make healthy food the easiest possible option, rather than learning how to resist temptation. 

The following five tips can help you derive an action plan that can be added to your study schedule. This will make healthy eating easier to accomplish. 

#1: Healthy Snacks and Eating regularly 

Instead of letting your energy completely run out by lunch or dinner, you’ll perform better by having healthy snacks throughout the day. This will prevent you from reaching a very low energy point when deciding what to eat and will thus enable you to make better and healthier choices at mealtime. Unhealthy food choices are a lot more appetizing when you are already mentally drained. 

Healthy snacking and small frequent meals will maintain your blood sugar at a more consistent level. This contrasts with sugary snacks like crisps, biscuits and caffeine-filled beverages, which may help provide a quick burst of energy. Their effects are short-term, making you tired and drowsy once the effects wear off. Therefore, healthy snacking is better than having spikes and drops in blood sugar as these are both bad for productivity and the brain. 

Almonds as an example of healthy food for students during exams

In order to make healthy snacking a habit in your busy study schedule, avoid buying sugary snacks like crisps, and biscuits. Instead, go to the supermarket and stock up with the following types of brain food. These healthy snacks have been proven to improve memory and boost your energy levels and mental alertness. 

  • Buy nuts and seeds and dried fruit and take them in a container with you to the library. You can also make your own nuts & dried fruit energy bites or trail mix, which can include walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, pecans and flax seeds. If you’re not a raw nut fan then you can also make a baked goody and add oils made from nuts and seeds. Or simply get that peanut butter tub and dip some apples. These will contain the same brain food goodness as having the raw nuts.  
  • Buy Veggies and Hummus. Hummus is high in brain-boosting Omega 3 fatty acids, as well as high in protein and calcium. This makes it perfect to eat with carrots, cucumber, red pepper, celery and even with some whole grain crackers like oatcakes.
  • Fresh Fruit. This is a good alternative for those sugar cravings. Fruits can be high in sugar but a lot better than a candy bar. They will give you boost energy alongside essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. They are also cheaper than most snacks as you can buy a big bunch of bananas or a bag of clementines to keep you going for a whole week. 
  • Air-popped corn. This is a great alternative to crisps. A lot healthier and easy to make at home. 

#2: Stay hydrated… and no, coffee and Redbull don’t count. 

Try green tea and herbal tea instead of caffeine and energy drinks. As mentioned already, caffeine only provides short-term support and often comes with longer-term side-effects like migraines and fatigue. Green tea and herbal teas are a good alternative to high-caffeine options. These will provide antioxidants, keep you hydrated and boost your concentration. 

In addition to teas, however, simply drink more water. Research suggests that drinking water improves exam grades. In fact, the research found that just half a bottle of water could boost students’ exam results as it boosts attention by almost 25 %. In contrast, even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, diminished concentration and reduced alertness. 

Thus, to maximise your focus stay hydrated and follow these tips to incorporate this healthy habit to your study schedule. 

  • Have a reusable water bottle and take it with you to the library and to exams. Not only is it better than single-use plastic bottles for the environment but it’s also easy to refill. 
  • If you are worried about having to go to the toilet, drink a bottle of water a few hours before your exams. You can also have a few sips during the exam. According to Psychology Today, this can offer momentary distraction and free the mind from a chain of thoughts, leading to better performance. 
  • Drink before you feel thirsty. If you are already feeling thirsty it means you are already dehydrated. 

Brain Food – Which foods will help you focus?

The following brain foods are essential and should be present in all your meals. To save time and incorporate these brain foods into your busy study schedule, have a look at this post on meal prepping hacks for students.

Lunchbox filled with white rice, chickpeas and avoccado.

#3: Leafy greens, Vegetables and Fruits 

Research suggests that eating vegetables and fruits throughout the day is not simply good for the body but also for the mind. This paper by The British Journal of Health Psychology, suggests that food affects our everyday life as their nutrients play a key role in enhancing our curiosity, motivation and engagement. Importantly, they mention how vegetables and fruit boost our mood and improve our memory. 

Vegetables and fruits also contain good amounts of fibre. This causes the energy in the food to be released slowly, avoiding any energy peaks. Vegetables like kale, chard, spinach, broccoli are also a vital source of vitamins before and during exams. Being dark leafy greens they also provide a good source of iron which helps fight tiredness and a lack of focus. Try eating fruit at breakfast, where you can add berries and bananas on to your porridge, or as a snack to boost your energy levels.  

Have a look at these vegan-friendly, leafy greens recipes  – which range from swiss chard noodle stir fry to sweet potato kale chilli – for some healthy brain boosters. 

#4: Omega 3 and Protein

For those students who eat fish, it is strongly recommended to eat lots of it ( at least twice a week) during exam period. Oil-rich fish and seafood contain Omega 3s, essential for brain health and concentration. Salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel are particularly healthy brain boosters. For something quick and easy consider sardines on toast as a healthy food option. 

For those students who have a vegan or vegetarian diet, consider having plant-based omega 3 supplements and adding chia, walnuts, flaxseeds, to your morning porridge/ fruit salad. Consider also eating more beans and pulses and make yourself some scrambled tofu for breakfast!  All these are very good omega 3 and rich in protein, brain boosting options. 

#5: Whole grains

Eat whole grains rather than processed grains. Whole grains contain the essential vitamins and minerals whilst, processed grains do not. Make sure to buy whole-grain bread, wholemeal pasta, brown rice and porridge. As whole grains they contain a higher quantity of fiber, which means they are a slow-release carbohydrate, keeping those energy levels balanced and making you feel full for longer. A good amount of fiber will also make sure to keep your digestive system well, helping you feel more comfortable during exams. 

Have a look at these tasty whole grains recipes for inspiration.

The night before the exam and the day of the exam 

It is important to have a healthy wholesome meal the night before the exam. Follow the suggestions on what brain foods to have from the tips above and have a full meal with protein, whole grains and lots of vegetables. Make yourself a herbal tea, such as chamomile tea, before bed or even treat yourself to a hot chocolate. Just be sensible and don’t drink coffee/caffeinated drinks or alcohol before going to bed. These will affect your sleep and make you restless. 

For the day of the exam, the number one rule is to make sure you eat. Start with a healthy breakfast. If you are feeling nervous and not hungry then have a healthy smoothie

But don’t just have cereal. Cereals’ primary ingredients are usually high processed wheat and refined sugar. If you have learned anything from this post by now, it is that this is not good for your energy levels. 

Have a look at this carefully crafted collection of recipes for exam-day breakfasts.

The point is simple – food has an effect on your brain’s ability to perform. In order to nourish yourself during exams and eat your way to good grades develop a well-prepared study plan which incorporates these healthy eating habits –  eat regular healthy snacks, stay hydrated, meal prep and incorporate brain foods into your diet and above all avoid junk food and energy drinks. 

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Here at Graduate Coach, we help students, graduates and career changers to land the job that is right for them. Contact us for help!

Featured Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

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