Food for Thought’ – nutritional advice for those preparing for and taking exams

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My girlfriend and I have had a guest staying this week. He is Swiss and is in London for an exam which has something to do with international tax law (it’s all a bit above my head, I’m afraid). Last night the three of us were eating together – our last supper before our guest was due to take his exam this morning. The exam is due to run from 10.00 am to 1.15 pm. I asked my guest what he would be eating for breakfast. His reply? “A couple of bananas”.

My immediate reaction was that a couple of bananas for breakfast is probably not going to provide my friend with optimal fuel for his exam. I don’t have anything against fruit per se, I just think that it’s unlikely to sustain his energy, and mental energy, this morning. This got me thinking that I might write today about a few simple nutritional tips that can help those preparing for and taking exams.

Possibly the most important nutritional concept with regard to optimising brain function is to ensure a decent, steady supply of fuel into the brain. Some carbohydrate can help here, but if at all possible these should release sugar relatively slowly into the bloodstream (low glycaemic index). However, out-and-out carb, evening low-GI carb, in my experience does not sustain energy levels and keep hunger at bay very well. What is generally required here, I’ve found, is a decent dose of protein and some fat. So, what to eat?

My advice to my friend was to have some bircher muesli this morning. I partly recommended in the basis that this is a Swiss concoction, and therefore should be (as is) familiar to my friend. But, the main reason for recommending it is that it is traditionally made from a blend of foods that give sustained fuelling for the body and brain.

The core ingredients I recommend for making bircher muesli are plain, full fat yoghurt, oats, nuts and/or seeds and dried/fresh fruit. For the batch that I made for this morning, I mixed all the ingredients (bar the fruit) with some water. This morning, I stirred in some mixed berries (frozen berries which had been defrosted).

One of the things I like about this food is that a little does seem to go a long way. In other words, even quite small portions do seem to provide good sustenance for extended periods of time. This is important because a lot of people when they get nervous or anxious before an exam don’t feel like eating much. I believe, therefore, that whatever is eaten should really count, if at all possible.

Bircher muesli, in my view, make a good lunch option too. For a long time I believed that in Switzerland, bircher muesli was eaten as a breakfast food. A couple of years ago I discovered that it is quite often eaten as a lunch or supper. This may seem odd from a cultural cuisine perspective, but I personally have not issue with it from a nutritional perspective.

Alternatives for lunch include a hot meal of say, fish, meat, omelette and vegetables, or a salad, ideally with a decent amount of fat and protein thrown in (e.g. meat, mackerel or egg).

Some exams can go on a bit, and there’s the risk that by the end of it brain fuelling can stall. I don’t think it’s a bad idea for snacks (if allowed) to be taken in and eaten during an exam. Munching on half a banana and a handful or two of nuts is generally all it takes to top up fuel supply and keep the brain motoring right through to the end of the exam.

Some of the reasons why these meal tend to work for optimising brain function relates to not what they contain, but what they don’t contain. These meals and food ideas are devoid of generally blood sugar destabilising carbohydrates such a commercial breakfast cereals and bread. And while we’re on the subject of these foods, another problem that can be associated with their eating concerns food sensitivity. It is possible for some foods to leak into the bloodstream in a partially digested form where they can trigger issues which include impaired brain function. Any food, technically speaking, might do this, but my experience in practice is that the number 1 offender in this respect is wheat. This doesn’t affect everyone, but it affects enough people in my experience to make me want to make special mention of it.

More details about the blood sugar imbalance and food sensitivity issues commonly provoked by eating a wheat-based lunch can be found here.

On top of getting the food right, fluid is important too. The important thing here, I think, is to maintain proper hydration. I wrote about this very recently here.

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