Be the best you can be : Top Nutrition tips for exam success.
The sun is finally out and all over the UK libraries are full with people stressing out about exams.
Research shows that eating the right foods can benefit mood and motivation, improve focus, lower anxiety and strengthen memory formation and that the wrong choices can make you feel sluggish or jittery, making learning and recall more difficult.
It is worth taking a few minutes to think about what you eat in the days running up to and during your exams.
EATING ADVICE FOR EXAM PERFORMANCE
1. EAT – Your brain needs the energy from food to work efficiently. Skipping meals and failing to drink enough will lower performance. In adults the brain is responsible for about 20% of total body energy expenditure but this has been measured as high as 44% in children. Oscillating blood sugar has been shown to affect long and short term memory, problem solving ability and concentration.
2. BREAKFAST – The links between eating breakfast and academic performance have been studied widely in a huge number of different age groups, settings and countries and eating breakfast has consistently been shown to enhance academic performance by improving both memory and mental agility or problem solving ability. The strongest association is found with eating breakfast everyday.
WHY? There are several reasons why breakfast may be so important for effective nutrition and exam performance. Regular breakfast may assist brain function by providing necessary glucose. Increased blood glucose does improve attention span and memory recall and glucose is also involved in the signalling pathways that regulate neurotransmitter release, neural activation and memory formation. Breakfast is also associated with better sleep duration and quality, which may improve cognitive performance or it maybe as simple as the fact that hunger is distracting.
THE PERFECT BREAKFAST? Low glycemic index, slow release carbohydrate breakfasts have been researched the most and are shown to improve test grades and mental agility though out the day. Mahoney et al (2005) looked at the effect of eating ready to eat cereal vs instant oatmeal or no breakfast and found that any breakfast was better than no breakfast but that oatmeal (even instant oatmeal) was the best, with improvements shown in both spatial memory and short term memory. Mixed dairy/grain/fruit breakfasts have also been shown to be beneficial.
3. SNACK INTELLIGENTLY – In some countries, you are given a five- to ten-minute break in the middle of a long exam. In the UK the Joint Council for Qualifications (who control OCR & AQA amongst others) say in their 2018 ‘Yellow Book’ that “food and drink may be allowed in the exam room at the discretion of the head of the exam centre. However, this is on the condition that any food brought into the examination room by the candidate is free from packaging and all labels are removed from drinks containers”.
WATER – Taking water into an exam room has been shown to have benefits both for speed of processing and memory recall and I would recommend taking a bottle of water into an exam. Studies show there is evidence of better grades from students who take water bottles into exams and sipping water has been shown to lower anxiety.
SNACKS – Healthy snacks may have some benefit during revision or a long exam but avoid sweets, as the energy high will be detrimental and could be followed by an energy crash, making you tired and sluggish. Breaking up periods of revision is a good idea and eating nuts, seeds, fruit or cheese sensible choices. I would not recommend taking food into an exam. It is almost certainly unnecessary in tests less than 2hrs, unless they are being conducted over the time at which you would normally be eating a meal.
TASTE AND APPETITE – I have met more than one person stress eating Smarties this week and there are reasons why this can happen. Stress, even low levels of stress causes changes in appetite and taste, favouring fattier high sugar foods. Its good to be aware of this as they are not the foods that you should be snacking on.
4. HEALTHY BRAIN BOOSTING FOODS OR FOODS THAT LOWER ANXIETY
OMEGA 3 – Foods high in omega3 fats are vital for brain development and plasticity and eating fish / shellfish will also give a good source of minerals. Omega 3s and 6s share the same digestive pathways and lowering your intake of 6s (maize/corn oil, sunflower oil, grape seed oil) maybe necessary to absorb more 3s. Its a little late now to get the benefits of brain change but omega 3s have another big advantage. Studies have shown that taking omega 3 supplements or having a diet high in omega3s lowers anxiety and also improves blood sugar regulation.
POLYPHENOLS / FLAVONOIDS – Eating lots of fruit and vegetables has huge benefits for many many reasons and the research on both fibre or phytonutrient intake and their interaction with gut microflora means high intakes are undoubtedly good for mental acuity and lower anxiety long term. However, there is also really good evidence for an acute effect and that eating foods high in flavonoids can improve performance in academic memory tasks and problem solving. The doses in the research are quite high but the results are impressive and many of the studies have looked at real foods and not just supplements. The foods studied are dark berries (blueberries, blackcurrants and cherries), Citrus fruits (specifically orange juice with bits), dark chocolate and green tea.
CAFFEINE – Last year a PhD was published titled “caffeine use, hours of sleep and academic performance in college students” and the conclusion was that there was no difference in academic performance but that there was evidence of poorer sleep in caffeine consumers against non-consumers. Caffeine does improve alertness and vigilance but is unlikely to be of benefit either in revision or an exam. Long term memory and memory recall is disrupted by poor sleep. Memories are initially stored as an ‘experience’ and are later consolidated making them more resistant to decay and allowing recollection. I have written about sleep and performance in more detail here and the foods that are linked with promoting sleep here.
5. AVOID HIGHLY PROCESSED FOODS – there is not a huge amount of strong evidence but increasingly researchers are finding a suggestion that processed foods and in particular highly refined carbohydrates and trans-fats effect brain processing. Try wherever possible to eat foods that are as unprocessed as possible. Many chemical additives can cross the blood-brain barrier. Some preservatives and colourings have been shown adversely affect behaviour and others we just don’t know about.
FIZZY POP – Where there has been a lot of research is looking at sugar sweetened beverages. Drinking soda at least once a day has been linked with increased likelihood of mostly B, C or D/F grades compared with mostly As.
If you would discuss any of the points raised, would like to know the scientific references for the research discussed or are interested in further reading, please contact me.