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Boosting your brain - what to eat (and what not to eat) during exams

publication date: May 10, 2011
author/source: Fiona Beckett
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As the old saying goes ‘You are what you eat’ so if you don’t want your brain to turn to mush during exam time you need to give your body a break and feed it some healthy food. If you input junk your output will be junk.

Obviously if your diet’s been poor you can’t achieve miracles overnight but just like an amateur runner preparing for a marathon you can give yourself the best possible chance. This month we’ve enlisted the help of some of Britain’s top doctors and nutritionists (see below) to give you some expert advice . Here’s what they say:

What happens to your body during exams
Revision and exams can set up a vicious circle of stress. Your body pumps adrenalin which brings on feelings of anxiety and tension. Without the right kind of food to boost you that runs down your blood sugar reserves leaving you feeling tired, edgy and still more stressed. Your natural inclination may be to turn to fatty or sugary food for comfort but that’s the worst thing you can do.

“Your biggest enemy is sugar. Eating sweets, chocolates, energy bars or anything else with a high sugar content gives you a short term boost followed by a sudden drop in the amount of sugar your blood contains” says alternative health expert Michael Van Straten. “If you depend on these type of snacks to get you through the day then you’re on a roller coaster of brain function which seriously interferes with concentration, memory and performance. The sugars you need must come mostly from unrefined starches like wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereal, oats in porridge and muesli, rice, beans and pasta. These all provide slow release energy which helps to keep your blood sugar on an even keel and prevents brain-sapping highs and lows.”

Surely food can’t make that much of a difference?
It does. “Food can literally keep you sane” says Dr Thomas Stuttaford of The Times. “If you’re starving as well as sleepless you’re more likely to have a mental breakdown.” Van Stratan agrees. “The right diet can make a difference between a first or second class degree or even a pass or a fail.”

While you’re revising
The run up to exams is an opportunity to adopt some new eating habits. Get into the habit of regular eating - little and often is much better than one big meal a day. Use this period to experiment with foods you may not have tried such as wholewheat cereals and pasta and tinned fish and reduce your reliance on sugary and fatty foods

  • Eat breakfast - a well nourished brain will improve your ability to take in information.
  • Have a break and a snack (see below) every couple of hours. And preferably a short walk outside.
  • Drink plenty of fluid - at least 1 1/2 litres a day, the majority of it water. An occasional fruit juice is fine, according to nutritionist Natalie Savona, but dilute it by half with water to dilute the high sugar content.
  • Think brown. Brown bread. Brown pasta. Brown rice. All a more sustaining source of energy than their white equivalents. (Try this recipe for Broccoli, Chilli and Garlic pasta)
  • Get your five fruit and vegetables a day - vitamin C is also essential for brain function. Keep a selection of cut up raw veg such as peppers and carrots in the fridge and snack on fruit like apples, strawberries and kiwi fruit
  • Boost your iron intake - especially important for women says Amanda Wynne of the British Dietetic Association. Red meat is ideal (mince works just as well as more expensive cuts) but if you’re a vegetarian, add nuts, pulses and leafy green veg such as broccoli to your diet to boost iron levels.
  • Make sure to include oily fish such as tuna, mackerel and sardines which can help to stabilise your mood and combat depression. Try our sardine tartine!
  • Adopt a regular bedtime for the exam period and stick to it - one that suits your natural body rhythms (see below)
  • Eat at your desk or keep packets of crisps or biscuits on it while you’re studying
  • Go down the pub and get legless
  • Suddenly decide to go on a diet. Exam time is definitely not the right time to worry about losing weight says Dr. Frankie Phillips of the British Nutrition Foundation.
  • Down endless cups of coffee, cola and other sugary drinks
  • Eat your food too fast. it will leave you feeling dissatisfied and may give you indigestion.
Some good snacks:

  • A couple of oatcakes, a chunk of cheese and an apple
  • A low sugar cereal bar or sesame snap
  • Some raw carrot or pepper strips, hummus and a wholegrain crispbread
  • A few dried apricots (preferably organic) and brazil nuts or almonds
  • A banana and some dates
  • A few strawberries and a natural yoghurt or a dollop of low fat fromage frais
  • A smoothie
  • Half an avocado with a spoonful of salad dressing
  • A wedge of Brie and a few grapes or blueberries
  • A kiwi fruit, crispbread and a couple of spoonfuls of cottage cheese
  • A hard boiled egg, a few cherry tomatoes and a stick of cucumber or celery
  • Wholewheat toast and Marmite
A pre-exam breakfast
Most dieticians agree that the ideal pre-exam breakfast would be a combination of carbs for slow release energy and some protein which also slows down the digestive process. Porridge is the best option but if you find that a bit heavy in hot weather have a bowl of muesli and some yoghurt (see our delicious Apple and Raisin Muesli

If you don’t like either try a wholewheat cereal such as Weetabix, Bran Flakes or Shredded Wheat - all low fat, low sugar options. A big bowl of cereal with semi-skimmed milk and a banana should see you through a four hour period (the banana gives a quick release of energy to get you started).

Thomas Stuttaford and Michael van Stratan both stress that breakfast should include a protein element - but it should be lean as fatty foods can make you feel nauseous. A boiled egg or some cold ham and cheese would be fine. Try also to include some fruit in the form of an orange juice or a tomato.

And if you can’t do without your daily coffee now is the best time to have it. Amanda Wynne recommends this as the perfect time for that quick cuppa. Caffeine is a stimulant which can aid concentration and speed reaction time.

“Remember, water, water, water “ says Amanda Wynne, “for exams whatever time of day.” Keeping hydrated will keep you concentrating. Especially in summer. If you’re allowed to take water in to the exam then do. A couple of squares of dark chocolate of 70% cocoa solids will also give you a boost.

A pre-exam lunch
Again balance a good hit of protein with some slow release carbs - not too much or it’ll make you feel sleepy. The best time to eat is about 1-2 hours beforehand says food and health writer Janette Marshall.

If you’ve got time to cook a plate of wholewheat pasta with tomato sauce and some grated cheddar would be good, she advises. Or beans on wholegrain toast.

If you’re taking your lunch with you go for a filling tuna salad sandwich or nutritionist Fiona Hunter’s delicious Smoked Mackerel and Flageolet Bean salad. If you’re a veggie try a wholemeal bap with chopped egg, cress and mayo or Wholemeal Wrap with Peanut Butter, Carrot and Cucumber instead.

DON’T eat a heavy fatty meal like sausage, beans and chips (fat is hard to digest if you’re nervous and can make you feel queasy) or sugary food like a bun or a muffin which will play havoc with your blood sugar levels.

Getting a good night’s sleep
It’s best to divide your evening eating into two meals. A light meal at least four hours before you go to bed (preferably before 8pm says Lynda Brown, author of The Insomniac’s Best Friend) then a late night drink or snack about half an hour before you go to sleep. Most nutritionists believe that a light protein-based meal is best for your earlier meal - based on lean chicken or fish and plenty of vegetables like Baked Salmon in Foil with Beans and Tomatoes. Veggies could try the Mixed Bean and Crumbly White Cheese salad. Lentils, nuts and seeds are all worth incorporating. . .

If you find cooking relaxing it’s a good thing to do at the end of the day but if you don’t there’s no harm in having a ready meal from one of the supermarkets healthy eating ranges. Most importantly try and share it with someone - have a chat and relax. Don’t stuff it down at your desk

Later on a small snack of a banana and a few nuts, a slice of hot-buttered wholemeal toast or a couple of wholemeal crackers can stop you waking with nightime hunger pangs. Or, better still, a lettuce sandwich “which combines the opiate-like chemicals in lettuce with the sleep-inducing effect of carbs” according to Michael van Straten.

If you find a warm milky drink comforting that will help you get to sleep, according to Amanda Phillips but if you don’t like milk try a calming camomile-based tea instead. Coffee - and other caffeine based drinks - should be a no-no at this stage of the day. And leave at least an hour between finishing work and going to bed to allow your body to wind down. Have a bath, dim the lights, listen to some favourite music and try to chill. Make the last hour of the day really slow says Lynda Brown.


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