Good nutrition can help students succeed during exams
How to stay calm during exams: Tips on how to help young people during their examinations by taking nutrition seriously.
Studying for exams is a stressful time, with long hours spent trying to absorb as much information as possible.
As parents, we wish to provide as much emotional support as we can, but it is just as important to support young people by providing the best foods to keep them energised morning to night, help them sleep sounder, stay mentally alert and stay calm.
Here are my top tips to provide simple ways to fuel the body at this important and stressful time:
Did you know your brain is 70 per cent fat? The essential fats known as EPA and DHA provide the structure and function to the brain, and without these your brain will not be performing at its best. Choose oily fish – tinned or fresh – 3–4 times a week, as they contain these important fats. Found in salmon, mackerel and sardines (not in tinned tuna). Try tinned sardines on wholemeal toast for a quick lunchtime meal. Or wrap salmon in tinfoil and cook alongside roasted chunks of vegetables like sweet potato, carrots and courgette.
Eggs contain several brain friendly nutrients: choline helps regulate mood and helps memory, plus B6 and B12 for the nervous system. They also provide a good protein source to help maintain energy. Boiled eggs can be kept in the fridge for several days. They make an easy quick snack on the go (if little time between exams). An omelette with vegetables or scrambled/poached eggs on toast is an excellent way to start the day.
Try to avoid excess caffeine in tea and coffee. The caffeine acts as a stimulant and creates an additional stress response (it releases adrenaline). It will not provide sustained energy, and it certainly will not help keep you calm. For a hot drink, try rooibos tea or other herbal types, or even lemon slices in hot water.
Stay well hydrated from morning to night. The brain requires hydration to function well, just like the rest of the body. A dehydrated brain will lead to tiredness and difficulty concentrating. Avoid fizzy drinks which contain either sugars or artificial sweeteners and other chemicals (often caffeine) and try to consume more water, ideally 1.5-2L per day but sipped little and often. Water flavoured with fruit and ice is refreshing on a hot day.
Remember to have protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Protein helps to maintain energy and fullness (preventing reaching for sugary snacks). Protein sources also convert to neurotransmitters that keep the brain calm, mood steady and concentration high. Choose Greek yogurt, lean meat, chicken, pulses, lentils and fish.
It is easy to want to reach for sugary snacks (this includes starchy crisps that quickly turn to sugar) as a means to maintain energy, but it is a false economy. It may seem to create a rush of energy, but it will leave the body feeling quickly lethargic. Imbalanced blood sugar leads to poor concentration too. Snacks that are low in sugars and have protein and good fats will create a steady supply of energy. Instead, choose plain nuts, a piece of cheese on oatcakes, a boiled egg, a slice of wholemeal toast with peanut/almond butter.
Have at least one portion of dark green leafy vegetables every day (broccoli, kale, spinach). They are rich in vitamins K, B6, lutein and beta-carotene that support memory and concentration.
Have a portion of berries every day (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries). They are rich in a type of plant flavonoid called anthocyanidins which also help memory/cognition. Berries are also a very low sugar fruit option. Snacking on blueberries will not raise blood sugar like a portion of grapes will!
Nuts and seeds
Choose nuts and seeds over crisps. All types from Brazil nuts to walnuts and pumpkin to sunflower seeds provide a good source of brain friendly fats, a good source of protein, fibre to help keep your gut healthy and minerals like magnesium and zinc that help to keep the body calm and support the stress hormones.
And remember to breathe deeply! When we are stressed, we tend to breathe shallowly, which can increase anxiety as the body holds on to carbon dioxide. Take a few breaks throughout the day to breathe deeply and slowly into the abdomen. Not only does the body feel calmer, but it also energises the brain.
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