Food and Exam Performance

A look at the relationship between nutrition and exam performance together with some food tips to help maintain focus and energy levels.

If you’re a student who has exams coming up, you’ll want to be prepared in every way possible. Maintaining a healthy diet whilst you’re focusing on studying for and sitting your exams can help you stay more mentally alert and allow you to concentrate for longer.

One of the best ways to guarantee the quality of the food you consume is to make meals yourself, rather than relying on takeaways and offerings from restaurants. Home cooking is also likely to be a lot cheaper than eating out and there are plenty of budget friendly student recipes out there that can keep your body and bank balance healthy. 

Can food improve your exam performance?

Student focusing on her studies

The truth is, eating well helps to provide you with more energy whilst also improving your mental focus. Eating a balanced diet during exam season can give you the daily dose of vitamins needed to maintain focus whilst helping you avoid illness. 

It’s important to not skip meals, as this will lead to a drop in energy and leave you feeling lethargic. If you can get all your necessary nutrients across three meals, you’ll put yourself in a better position to perform well in your exams.  

Best breakfast on exam days

It’s been proven that students who eat breakfast generally perform better in exams than those who don’t. The ideal breakfast to go for on the morning of an exam should typically include slow-release carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, porridge oats or muesli. Some protein is also recommended such as eggs, milk, or yoghurt as protein helps to line your stomach for longer. Finally, some food containing omega-3 fatty acids such as cold-water fish, nuts and seeds or plant oils are a good option as they are believed to contain brain boosting properties.  

The importance of staying hydrated

Water bottles on a table

Staying well-hydrated has numerous health benefits (both physical and mental) and drinking sufficient water is key to maintaining focus and being able to concentrate for a long time. When it comes to exams, you’ll want to avoid being dehydrated at all costs, as this can lead to headaches, tiredness and reduce your level of alertness – the last things you want whilst sitting an important exam! You should always take a bottle of water into the exam room with you, as this will help you to stay hydrated and focused whilst the exam is ongoing. 

It’s recommended by The European Food Safety Authority that women drink about 1.6 litres of fluid a day and men drink 2 litres. This doesn’t all have to be water, healthier drinks such as fruit juices and small amounts of milk, tea and coffee can help top your body up with necessary nutrients whilst rehydrating you. 

Which foods can help maintain focus?

It’s important that you eat a balanced diet to ensure your body and mind work at the optimal level. However, certain foods have been found to specifically assist with maintaining focus. 

  • Oily fish – Fish such as salmon and mackerel are considered to be two of the healthiest types of fish as they are great sources of protein and omega-3. Essential healthy fats such as omega-3 can help improve brain functions and eye health. It’s therefore recommended that you try to eat at least two sources of omega-3 fatty acids per week. 
  • Fruit & vegetables – As excellent sources of fibre, fruits and vegetables can help to slow down digestion which means energy is released more slowly. This is important during exam season as it will help to keep you energised throughout your papers. 
  • Eggs – Packed with vital nutrients such as vitamin B12 and being a good source of protein, eggs are ideal healthy brain food. Eggs are versatile and can be the perfect way to start a day. They are usually more filling when compared to other meal choices and they go down well alongside a range of other breakfast options. 
  • Peanut butter – It’s a common misconception that peanut butter is unhealthy, as it’s filled with healthy fats and protein. Adding a small amount of peanut butter to a bowl of porridge or banana on toast can be an ideal boost for your brain, and it will also help to keep you full for longer. 

Which foods can help with getting a good night’s sleep?

Sleep is vital to everything, and it can seriously impact your focus and memory. If you’ve got exams coming up, you’re going to want to get the optimal amount of sleep each night to keep you mentally alert.

There’s many myths and false information regarding eating before going to sleep, but it’s generally thought that consuming a heavy meal too close to bedtime can interfere with your level of sleep. It’s recommended that you eat your last major meal at least three hours before you go to sleep. It’s also wise to avoid food and drinks that contain caffeine too close to bedtime as the effects of caffeine can last up to twelve hours. 

If you’re hungry before going to sleep, a small snack which is rich in fibre such as cereal or porridge is the ideal solution. 

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Student revising for an exam