Facing exam time? There’s a temptation to reach for high caffeine drinks or lollies for instant energy, but with many exams lasting hours, it’s better to think like an athlete and treat exams like an endurance event.
A lot of people don’t realise how much energy your brain uses, and it’s the timing of the meals that matters.
You need to control blood sugar and keep yourself on an even keel, not have high sugary/caffeinated foods/drinks just before an exam, but aim for slowly released nutrients.
The key is to maximise concentration, optimize brain function and keep sugar levels even. You don’t want to get jittery, or anxious.
Caffeine can increase anxiety and make you more nervous when you want to be calm, focussed and achieve peak performance over a few hours. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon – and you want to win.
Here’s my top five nutrition tips for dealing with exams:
- Before an exam, eat foods you are familiar with; this isn’t the time to try anything new or exotic.
- Timing is everything. Come to the exam feeling comfortable, not overfed. Aim to eat about two hours before an exam to get the maximum benefit from the meal – so for a 9am exam, eat before 7am. For an afternoon exam, eat a good breakfast or brunch three or so hours before, and top up with a light lunch. Keep drinking water in the half hour immediately before the start.
But if you feel you need something immediately prior to the exam, like an athlete, choose a smoothie or a tetra pack of something like Up and Go or Sustagen, because you really want your stomach to be relatively empty before you begin so your blood supply is going to the brain, away from the digestive system, so you don’t get a ‘dumping’ syndrome.
- Your brain feeds on glucose, but it doesn’t need bags of confectionery. You need slow-release carbohydrates. Foods like porridge, other wholegrain cereals or baked beans on wholegrain toast are some of the best foods; a banana sandwich will give you instant energy, but if you choose a grainy bread it will also sustain you with low GI energy.
- For brain food over a long period, you need omega 3 fatty acids, so choose fish as part of your pre-exam diet. If you don’t like fish choose lean red meat or walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil and linseeds for an omega 3 boost. And then there are always the omega 3 enriched foods like omega 3 eggs. Also, go for plenty of fruit and vegetables with lots of colour to counteract any oxidative damage, such as blueberries, raspberries, kiwifruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach and kale.
- Keep hydrated – if you are even slightly dehydrated it adversely affects concentration. Take water with you into the exam (in a clear, unlabelled bottle).
Click here to listen to my podcast from my discussion with Denis Walter on Radio 3AW on this subject. Good luck to all the students doing exams!