Eating for exams

If you're hitting the books to revise for an exam (or know someone who is), discover which foods will help nourish the body and keep the brain focused and sharp.

Students sitting an exam in a hall

Having just started studying again in my late 20s, I am reminded of all the desperate ways we try to overload our brains when exams loom. Record cards, corkboards, exercise books, revision plans, mock tests and lots of sticky notes jostle for space, and while everyone's capacity for learning is different, you can ensure your brain is ready to absorb all that information with a diet packed with brain-boosting foods.

Late nights, stress, missed meals and quick food fixes will all play havoc with your ability to concentrate, absorb information and function properly. So, if you're in the midst of a revision frenzy, follow our foodie advice for making the most of your mind.

1. Keep calm

No matter how close your test is, try to keep calm. Stress can have an adverse effect on your appetite and skipping meals won't do your concentration any favours. Discover our top diet and lifestyle tips to help manage your stress levels.

Eggs broken into a bowl

2. Eat regularly

Despite the ongoing debate around the benefits or risks of intermittent fasting, while revising, it's best to eat regularly. Fill up at breakfast on slow-release oats for energy and eggs – they contain a nutrient called choline that's thought to improve cognitive performance and memory as we age. For lunch, eat foods with a low glycemic index to keep you going until dinner. And, for your last meal of the day, enjoy some oily fish, especially salmon – it's a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, has many health benefits and is believed to help support brain function. Not a fish fan? Try some chia seeds or flaxseeds, believed to be the best vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Recipes to try:

Healthy breakfasts
Low-GI lunches
Top salmon recipes
Chia seed recipes

Salmon fillet with herbs, salt and pepper

Stay hydrated

Water allows many of the chemical reactions in our bodies to take place, so the speed at which our brains work and can process information can be affected if we become dehydrated. The NHS recommends we drink around 1.2 litres (or six to eight glasses) of fluid a day, and that most of it is water.

Find out how much water to drink a day.

Eat for energy

Tempted to reach for something sweet to get you through the afternoon? Prepare some tasty snacks to munch while you're working instead. The temporary high you'll get from sugar will be quickly followed by a crash in blood sugar levels, which causes fatigue.

Blueberries

Opt instead for healthy snacks like dried fruit nuggets or melon bran pots, or enjoy blueberries, blackcurrants and other berries – they're full of vitamin C, which is thought to improve mental agility. Vitamin E and zinc are also thought to have a positive impact on the brain, so have a handful of pumpkin seeds or walnuts alongside the berries the next time hunger strikes.

Try these 10 healthy snacks you can make in minutes.

Food heroes

From wholegrains and seeds to tomatoes and sage, make sure you're au fait with brain-boosting foods by reading through our top 10.

Get enough sleep

Lack of sleep will make revising much more difficult, and you'll be much more likely to reach for a sugary fix to get through the learning lulls.

Two people sleeping tucked up in bed

Warm milk and herbal teas before bed have a sedative effect, while a carb-rich snack an hour or so before you head upstairs will clear the way for sleep-inducing amino acids to reach the brain. Read our sleep well feature for more suggestions to help you nod off.

Ditch your phone, tablet or laptop at least 30 minutes before bed. This will help to stop the release of dopamine and get your body ready for sleep. If you must use your phone or tablet before bed, make sure it's set to 'night shift mode', and avoid taking your tablet or phone to bed with you. Rather than using your phone as an alarm, try an old-fashioned alarm clock – this way, you won't be disturbed by incoming messages or tempted to go online if you wake up in the night.

Support your immune system

If you've been suffering from stress or sleepless nights or had a poor diet during revision, your immune system will likely need a helping hand. Avoid having your hard work scuppered by a cold or worse by filling your plate with fruit, veg and wholegrains.

How to prevent a cold
How to get rid of a cold
Which natural cold remedies really work?

Read more

Top 5 foods to boost your child's brainpower
10 foods to boost your brainpower
Foods that improve memory


This article was last reviewed on 14th October 2019 by Jo Lewin.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

What are your top foodie tips for revising? Leave a comment below...

Comments, questions and tips

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TheEightHours's picture
TheEightHours
3rd Mar, 2016
Got the perfect energy boost for a quick snack. Healthy, tasty and good for you - killer combo: https://theeighthours.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/gf-carrot-cake-muffins/
brain100
14th Feb, 2016
Great article. Good food and natural supplements. www.brainfunctionbooster.com
jeanettemp
15th May, 2014
Sleep is the best thing. If you find yourself dropping off, don't fight it, go to bed but then get up early. When I was studying for exams (a long time ago) we didn't know anything about "five a day" and there were no energy drinks. Apples, tinned sardines, tea and toast, a mug of hot chocolate in the winter exams, a small glass of pepsi for the summer ones.
bethany.lane@ta...
9th May, 2014
very informative article - thanks for the advice!!!
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