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What To Eat When Preparing For Exams

What To Eat When Preparing For Exams

Article by:
Fong Qiu Rong
PhD – English Language and English Literature, National University of Singapore
MA – Language Studies, National University of Singapore
BA – English Language, National University of Singapore

What you eat and drink can affect your exam performance.

A long exam is like a mental marathon in which endurance is critical.

Nutritionists emphasize the importance of healthy eating habits at this stressful time.

What is the best diet to follow on exam day?

Can food and drink affect your test scores?

The right food and drink can energize your system, improve your alertness and sustain you through the long exam hours.

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Make Sure To Eat

Even if you normally do not eat breakfast, or are not able to eat when you are nervous, you should still make the effort to eat something.

Very simply, your brain needs the energy from food, to work efficiently.

It will be such a waste to study intensively before your exam, and then be too tired physically to do your best on exam day.

Eat Brain-Boosting Food

This includes protein-rich foods which can lead to greater mental alertness.

Healthy food choices on exam day include eggs, nuts, yogurt, and cottage cheese.

Good breakfast combinations might be whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, eggs and toast with jam, porridge, or oatmeal.

Other dietary choices considered to be brain foods are fish, walnuts, blueberries, sunflower seeds, fruits, figs, and prunes.

Many consider fruit to provide excellent brain fuel, which can help you think faster and remember more easily.

You could eat cantaloupes, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, or bananas, which are especially popular.

Beneficial vegetables would include raw carrots, Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, and asparagus.

Carrots have long been known to be good for the eyes and it turns out, they are good for the brain, too.

Carrots have high levels of a compound called luteolin, which could reduce age-related memory deficits and inflammation in the brain, according to a study published in the journal Nutrition.

In the study, mice whose daily diet was supplemented with 20 milligrams of luteolin had reduced inflammation in their brains.

The researchers said the compound also restored the mice’s memory to the level of younger mice’s.

Olive oil and celery are also high in luteolin.

Avoid Brain-Blocking Foods

On exam day, stay away from foods made of white flour, such as cookies, cakes, and muffins, which require added time and energy to digest.

Also avoid foods that are high in refined sugar, such as chocolates, desserts, and candies.

When eaten alone, carbohydrates make you feel more relaxed than alert.

So carbohydrates are a good option for the day before the exam, but not on the actual exam day.

Also, carbohydrates such as rice or potatoes – when eaten in large quantities – can make you feel heavy and sleepy.

Avoid foods that a high in sugar, such as chocolates, desserts, and candies.

They will send you off on sugar highs and lows – the opposite of stabilizing you during your long exam.

Drink Brain-Boosting Beverages

If you want to improve your focus, you need to drink enough water.

Water gives the brain the electrical energy for all brain functions, including thought and memory processes, and it has been proven to help you think faster, be more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity.

Every single function of your body depends on water, so it is critically important that you get enough of it.

Make sure you drink enough water before and during your exam.

Dehydration can make you lose your concentration, feel faint, and sap your energy.

Don’t wait till you are thirsty to drink a glass of water.

If you wait till you are thirsty, it means your body is already a little dehydrated.

Avoid Brain-Blocking Beverages

Reduce your intake of sugary sodas and colas.

Avoid caffeine, as it can increase your nervousness.

However, if you are accustomed to drinking coffee regularly, then have a small cup.

Try to eat something healthy along with your coffee.

If you cut out the coffee suddenly and completely, you could end up with a caffeine-withdrawal headache.

Don't Try Anything New

Avoid trying any new foods, drinks, or supplements just before the exam, even if they come highly recommended by friends or family.

You don’t know how your body responds to them and you don’t want any surprises on exam day.

Stick with food and drink that your body is accustomed to.

Eat Light Meals

Eat enough to feel satisfied but not so much as to feel full.

If you eat a big breakfast or lunch before an exam, you will feel drowsy and heavy.

Your body’s energy will be focused on the digestive process rather than on providing your brain with the energy it needs to function efficiently.

Instead, try a light lunch such as a salad with chicken or salmon.

Snack Intelligently

Healthy snacks such as protein bars, trail mix, energy bars, granola bars, almonds, walnuts, or fruit can keep your energy high.

Avoid eating chocolates or sweet treats right before the exam, as the energy high could be followed by an energy crash during your exam.

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The Importance Of The Brain

Your brain is the most important organ in your body.

As the control center of your body, it’s in charge of keeping your heart beating and lungs breathing and allowing you to move, feel and think.

Plus, the brain is at risk of deterioration, like any other organ.

Maintaining a healthy brain throughout life can prevent brain-related diseases later on.

That’s why it is so important to keep your brain working in optimum condition with a healthy diet.

The Correct Nutrients For The Brain

The brain has a big job to do and it really needs to be fueled well to function at full capacity.

The wrong dietary choices can make you feel sluggish, jittery, or burned out.

That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your brain in peak working condition.

In our increasingly health-conscious world, parents and students are seeking the answers to these important questions.

We all hope that healthy pre-exam nutrition will give us an added edge during exam time.

And in fact, it can.

Nutrition Affects Brain Function

Science has shown that your diet can play a major role not just in health, but in brain function and prevention of common cognition disorders.

Whether you want to optimise your nutrition during exam season or simply want to stay sharp in your next work meeting, paying attention to your diet can really pay off.

Improve Memory

Eating power foods for the brain can help you improve memory, decision-making ability, mental response time, and mood.

Brain power foods contain antioxidants and other nutrients that protect the brain.

They also provide essential fatty acids that stimulate and strengthen brain cells.

The Importance Of Food

Food has the incredible ability to affect your mental clarity, mood, memory, and ability to focus, so if you’re looking to boost your focus, one of the places you should start with is what you’re eating.

Some foods have negative effects on the brain, impacting your memory and mood, as well as your ability to study.

Brain Power Food - Bananas

Rich in potassium and magnesium, bananas give the brain energy and help sharpen the brain’s focus, increasing the ability to pay attention and learn.

Bananas also offer vitamins and nutrients that improve cognitive function overall,

Truly a super-fruit for the brain, bananas also help improve and regulate mood, which is controlled centrally in the brain,

Brain Power Food - Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds may help enhance memory and boost mood.

Richer in zinc than many other seeds, pumpkin seeds supply this valuable mineral which is vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills.

These little seeds are also full of stress-busting magnesium, B vitamins and tryptophan, the precursor to the good-mood chemical serotonin.

Brain Power Food - Omega 3's

About 60% of your brain is made of fat, and half of that fat is the Omega-3 kind.

Your brain uses Omega-3’s to build brain and nerve cells, and these fats are essential for learning and memory.

One study found that people who ate baked or broiled fish regularly had more gray matter in their brains.

Gray matter contains most of the nerve cells that control decision making, memory and emotion.

Omega-3 also has links to improving mood and reducing stress, which can help improve cognitive ability.

People who are deficient in Omega-3’s are more likely to have poor memory, mood swings, depression and fatigue.

Omega-3’s increase the secretion of anti-inflammatory compounds in the brain, and can have a protective effect – especially in older adults.

Foods that are rich in Omega-3 include fish and walnuts.

Fatty fish like salmon and tuna contain healthy fats that feed the brain.

The natural oils of these fish are full of Omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, which are essential for brain health.

Eating salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, and other fatty fish has been shown to stimulate brain cell growth.

Brain Power Food - Eggs

Eggs are a real powerhouse when it comes to brain health.

They are packed with nutrients that help the brain in many ways, and may help delay brain shrinkage.

Vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid are readily found in eggs, and are known to reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood.

Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of stroke, heart disease, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

A study of a group of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that there was significantly less brain shrinkage compared to a subset given placebo treatment, after two years of intervention with high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid.

Choline is an important micronutrient that your body uses to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory.

Two studies found that higher intakes of choline were linked to better memory and mental function.

Nevertheless, many people don’t get enough choline in their diet.

Eating eggs is an easy way to get choline, given that egg yolks are among the most concentrated sources of this nutrient.

Adequate intake of choline is 425 mg per day for most women and 550 mg per day for men, with just a single egg yolk containing 112 mg.

Furthermore, the B vitamins found in eggs have several roles in brain health.

They may help slow the progression of mental decline in the elderly.

Also, being deficient in two types of B vitamins — folate and B12 — has been linked to depression.

B12 is also involved in synthesizing brain chemicals and regulating sugar levels in the brain.

Eggs, chicken, fish and green leafy vegetables are rich in Vitamins B.

They also contain the healthy version of cholesterol, which helps form brain cell membranes and can strengthen the brain’s cells and structures.

Eggs also contain several antioxidants, have protein, and include healthy fats, all of which contribute to protecting the brain.

Brain Power Food - Almonds And Walnuts

Almonds and walnuts are another excellent snack or meal addition that can improve brain health and protect brain cells.

Walnuts even look like little brains, so maybe that’s Mother Nature’s way of telling us what walnuts are good for.

A study reported in the Journal of Nutrition found that diets in which nuts made up as little as 2 percent reversed signs of aging in the brains of old rats, including the ability of the brain to function and process information.

And a study presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease reported that mice with Alzheimer’s demonstrated improved learning, memory and motor coordination after being fed walnuts.

Walnuts contain high amounts of antioxidants, which some researchers say may combat the damage to brain cells’ DNA caused by free radicals in our bodies.

They are full of the Omega-3 fatty acids that your brain needs, along with lean protein to strengthen brain cells and improve cognitive function.

Almonds and walnuts are also great sources of antioxidant vitamin E, which has been shown to be a powerful brain protector that has been linked to reducing dementia and Alzheimer’s risk.

Brain Power Food - Blueberries

So powerful is the blueberry’s ability to boost the memory that this fruit is also thought by scientists to protect the brain from future memory lapses as well.

Studies show that blueberries boost concentration and memory for up to five hours because the antioxidants in blueberries stimulate the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain – and keep the mind fresh.

A powerful little fruit, the blueberry is loaded with important vitamins and nutrients, including antioxidants.

Blueberries also contain a cocktail of anti-oxidants including anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, resveratrol and tannins.

Blueberries and other deeply colored berries deliver anthocyanins, a group of plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Antioxidants act against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions that may contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Some of the antioxidants in blueberries have been found to accumulate in the brain and help improve communication between brain cells.

Animal studies have shown that blueberries help improve memory and may even delay short-term memory loss.

Blueberries have been shown to boost focus, and even protect against cancer and heart disease.

Blueberries are widely available, and contain protective compounds called anthocyanins.

Dark red and purple fruits and vegetables also contain anthocyanins.

Brain Power Food - Broccoli

Broccoli may help improve brainpower.

Researchers have reported that because broccoli is high in compounds called glucosinolates, it can slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which we need for the central nervous system to perform properly and to keep our brains and our memories sharp.

Broccoli is great source of vitamin K, which is known to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower.

Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin is essential for forming sphingolipids, a type of fat that is densely packed into brain cells.

Beyond vitamin K, broccoli contains a number of compounds that give it anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which may help protect the brain against damage.

Brain Power Food - Blackcurrents

Vitamin C has long been thought to have the power to increase mental agility.

Interesting studies demonstrate that vitamin C may be useful in managing anxiety and stress.

Some research suggests that a deficiency of Vitamin C may be a risk factor for age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

One of the best sources of this vital vitamin is blackcurrants.

Others include citrus fruits such as oranges, and broccoli.

Brain Power Food - Cherries

Free radicals are damaging to cells, causing plenty of deterioration in the body, including in the brain, over time.

However, a lesser known factor in age deterioration is inflammation. When tissues are inflamed, they do not function normally.

This can damage nerves and neurons. It can also affect blood flow and oxidation over time.

Cherries help reduce inflammation, including in and around the brain.

As a result, cherries are like anti-aging powerhouses for the brain.

Brain Power Food - Leafy Green Vegetables

Leafy green vegetables are full of antioxidants and carotenoids, which boost your brain power, and help protect your brain.

A good, general tip: the greener a leaf vegetable is, the better.

Leafy green vegetables are also full of B-vitamins, which are proven to help your memory, focus, and overall brain health and power.

They also contain folic acid, which improves your mental clarity.

Leafy greens like spinach and kale are powerful brain boosters.

Spinach is loaded with vitamins C and E, which, studies have shown, help to improve cognitive abilities.

A study described in the Journals of Gerontology showed that rats whose diet was supplemented with vitamin E experienced a 500 to 900 percent increase in brain and nerve tissue over an eight-month period, as well as an increase in the release of dopamine in the brain, the “pleasure” chemical that controls flow of information to different parts of the brain.

Full of antioxidants and nutrients, leafy greens help protect the brain and improve its function.

Vitamins A, C, and K help reduce free radicals, boost brain power, and improve cell health.

Folate and lutein and found in abundance in these vegetables, helping strengthen the brain.

High levels of potassium and iron also improve brain function and increase oxygenation, protecting the brain, and making it work more efficiently.

Brain Power Food - Grapes

The blood and the brain have a very close relationship.

Grapes – by improving certain types of cardiovascular function – can also help improve brain function.

Scientists are finding that grapes can contribute to greater vascular flexibility, less clotting, and better blood flow.

All of these can increase the blood (and subsequent oxygen supply) to the brain.

With more to power it, the brain tends to be healthier.

Brain Power Food - Avocados

Although avocados sometimes get a bad rap for being fattening, the healthy fats found in avocados can actually be beneficial for the brain.

Packed with other nutrients as well, avocados ultimately help the brain by:

  • Increasing blood supply
  • Improving oxygenation in the blood
  • Enhancing brain signals to the muscles
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Preventing stroke
  • Reducing seizure activity
  • Through its healthy fatty acids and other nutrients, avocados prove to be one of the best superfruits for the brain overall

Brain Power Food - Olive Oil

Olive oil has many health benefits, and is an important power food for the brain.

The oil is an excellent source of polyphenols, which have been shown to protect the brain.

It also has many antioxidants that improve brain function and reduce the risk of brain health concerns.

Olive oil can reduce the risk of depression and dementia as well.

It also has anti-inflammatory properties, that can speed healing and improve overall health.

Brain Food - Tomatoes

There is good evidence to suggest that lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells which occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s.

Cooking tomatoes with a little olive oil can optimize absorption and efficacy.

Brain Power Food - Soy

Much like salmon and tuna, soy is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids and lean protein, both of which help support brain function and improve brain health.

Soy is also rich in iron, an essential nutrient important for overall health as well as brain function.

Iron deficiency can affect memory, attention span, and learning ability.

A diet high in products like edamame, tofu, and soy-based protein can help support brain cells, improve memory, increase cognitive function, and help with learning.

Brain Power Food - Wholegrains

“Brown” cereals, granary bread, rice and pasta provide steady supplies of energy to the brain because the glucose that they contain are released slowly into the bloodstream.

These low-GI wholegrains help in your ability to focus and concentrate.

Foods like these are brain power foods because they contain nutrients that strengthen the brain, improve its function, and protect it from damage and disease.

A diet high in antioxidants, Omega-3s, healthy fats, iron, and other nutrients can supercharge your brain and aid in preventing dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other brain disorders.

Keep your brain young by including these brain power foods next time you go grocery shopping.

Consider Taking Multi-Vitamins

If you feel that your diet is not as balanced and healthy as you would like it to be, consider taking B vitamins or a good multi-vitamin tablet.

The B vitamins especially strengthen brain functioning.

Iron, zinc and calcium boost your body’s ability to handle stress.

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Sugary Drinks

Beverages like sports drinks, fruit juice, energy drinks and soda contain a lot of sugar.

Many sugary drinks contain high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is made up of 55% fructose and 45% glucose.

Studies on animals have shown that a high fructose intake can lead to insulin resistance in the brain, as well as a reduction in brain function, learning, memory, and the formation of brain neurons.

One study in rats found that when they were fed with a high-fructose diet, they had a higher risk of memory impairments and metabolic disorders.

They also gained more weight and had worse blood sugar control, and suffered from increased brain inflammation.

While further studies in humans are needed, the results suggest that a high intake of fructose from sugary drinks may have negative effects on the brain, beyond the effects of having sugar peaks and troughs.

Some alternatives to sugary drinks include vegetable juice, unsweetened dairy products, and unsweetened iced tea.

Refined Carbohydrates

Research has shown that just a single meal that is packed with refined carbohydrates can impair memory in both children and adults.

Another study in healthy university students found that those who had a higher intake of fat and refined sugar also had poorer memory.

This effect on memory may be due to inflammation of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that affects some aspects of memory, as well as responsiveness to hunger and fullness cues.

Refined carbohydrates may have other effects on the brain too.

For example, one study found that children aged six to seven who consumed diets high in refined carbs also scored lower on nonverbal intelligence tests.

However, this study could not determine whether consuming refined carbs caused these lower scores, or simply whether the two factors were related.

Sugars and highly processed grains – like white flour – are refined carbohydrates, and have a high glycemic index (GI).

This means that your body digests the carbohydrates quickly, causing a spike in your blood sugar and insulin levels.

When eaten in larger quantities, these foods often have a high glycemic load (GL).

The GL refers to how much a food raises your blood sugar levels, based on the serving size.

Foods that are high-GI and high-GL have been found to impair brain function.

Consuming these causes a spike in insulin production and sends toxins to the brain.

Healthy, lower-GI carbohydrates include foods like fruits, whole grains, vegetables and legumes.

Food High In Trans Fats

Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that can have a detrimental effect on the health of the brain.

Trans fats can also have other effects on your brain: if consumed for too long, they can result in a sort of brain shrinkage that is somewhat similar to the shrinkage caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

This brain shrinkage takes place due to the fact that trans fats slowly damage the arteries – you can prevent this and lower the stroke risk by simply limiting your intake of trans fats.

Meat and dairy contain natural trans-fats, and are generally not as dangerous as industrially-produced trans-fats known as hydrogenated vegetable oils.

These artificial trans-fats can be found in snack foods, ready-made cakes, prepackaged cookies, margarine, and frosting.

Studies have found that when people constantly consume higher amounts of trans-fats, they tend to have an increased risk of poorer memory, lower brain volume, and cognitive decline.

One small study of 38 women found that those who consumed more saturated fat relative to unsaturated fat performed worse on memory and recognition measures.

Thus, it may be that the relative ratios of fat in the diet are an important factor, not just the type of fat itself.

However, there are also other studies that have not found an association between trans-fat intake and brain health.

Nonetheless, our intake of trans-fats should be avoided wherever possible because they have a negative effect on many other aspects of health, including heart health.

Highly Processed Foods

Food like chips, store-bought sauces, sweets, instant noodles and ready-made meals are highly processed and tend to contain a lot of sugar, added fats and salt.

Almost all processed foods contain chemicals, dyes, additives, artificial flavors, preservatives and such – these can affect the behavior and the cognitive functioning due to the chemical that causes hyperactivity, both in children and in adults.

Fried or processed foods slowly destroy the nerve cells located in the brain.

However, some oils are more dangerous than others – sunflower oil is considered to be among the most toxic ones.

Highly processed foods are often high in calories and low in beneficial nutrients.

They cause weight gain, and can also have a negative effect on your brain health.

A study of 243 people who at large amounts of highly processed foods found visceral fat (increased fat around the organs).

Visceral fat is associated with brain tissue damage.

The nutrient composition of processed foods in the Western diet can also negatively affect the brain and contribute to the development of degenerative diseases.

Another study involving 52 people found that a diet high in unhealthy ingredients resulted in reduced sugar metabolism in the brain and a decrease in brain tissue.

In a study involving 18,080 people, it was found that a diet high in fried foods and processed meats is associated with lower scores in learning and memory.

Similar results were found in another large-scale study in 5,038 people, conducted over a 10-year duration. A diet high in red meat, processed meat, baked beans and fried food was associated with inflammation and a faster decline in reasoning over that 10 year period.

In an 8-month study, rats were fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet. These rats showed impaired learning ability and negative changes to brain plasticity.

You can avoid processed foods by eating mostly foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, fresh meat and fresh fish.

One of the best things you can do for your brain is to follow a diet rich in healthy, fresh whole foods.

Junk Food

A recent study that was performed at the University of Montreal has revealed that junk food can change the chemicals in the brains, thus leading to symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

Besides, foods that are high in fat can also trigger some symptoms that are similar to the signs of withdrawal when you stop consuming them.

These foods affect the production of dopamine, an important chemical that promotes happiness and an overall feeling of well-being.

Moreover, dopamine also supports the cognitive function, the learning capacity, alertness, motivation and memory.

This is why it is important to avoid all foods that contain excessive fat.

Article written for Star Tutors.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this article are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from Star Tutors or its editors

All health content on 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 own healthcare provider

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