MENTION exams and the crammers among us (guilty, your Honour) will recall long, sleepless nights, vats of black coffee and sugar in all its forms.
In the run-up to exams, good nutrition is often the first thing that slips from your priority list. If you’re counting down the days to next month’s Leaving or Junior Certificate, the blessings of a hearty bowl of morning porridge mightn’t be on your revision list.
However, sitting exams is a physical and mental endurance test and how you fuel your body will make a big difference to how you feel and perform. While eating fish oils won’t help you get 625 points in your Leaving Cert, eating well will keep the body energised and the mind alert.
Wholefoods nutritionist Nicola Murphy says eating regular meals and the right things will go a long way towards helping students cope with the pressures of the exam period.
Like the rest of us, memories of her own Leaving Cert are still uncomfortably fresh in her mind. She recalls being given a Mars bar by her mother to help keep her energy up during one particularly intense exam.
While attitudes to sugar have changed, the idea that food can fuel your performance remains the same.
The nutritionist recommends eating three solid meals a day and two healthy snacks.
“Eat regularly, don’t skip meals and try not to reach for the biscuits when your energy is flagging,” Murphy tells Feelgood.
Too much sugar can play havoc with your concentration and it also leads to the inevitable post-sugar-rush slump.
Eating slow-release wholemeals and protein with every meal is key to staving off energy dips, she says.
A good breakfast is really important. Porridge, sugar-free muesli or eggs on wholemeal toast are all options, but if pre-exam nerves are affecting the appetite, a smoothie enhanced with protein powder and fruit and seeds will also set you up for the day.
It’s also helpful to stock up on healthy snacks, Murphy advises.
She lists a number of healthy options: nut butter on oatcakes or Ryvita crackers, blueberries and strawberries, homemade flapjacks, nuts and seeds, raw vegetable sticks and hummus.
There are a number of good commercial options — Bounce bars, Trek bars, 9bars. “There are no refined sugars in these and they all have protein. They are healthy options to take into an exam to keep you going.”
She advises steering clear of caffeine and fizzy drinks, which will cause blood sugars to rocket.
However, tea in moderation is okay. “Tea contains theanine which can help focus the mind. Green tea is good too.”
And though it might not seem important to brain power, keeping hydrated is essential for an alert mind. Health experts recommend 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day, though some of that can be in the form of tea and herbal teas. “Hydration is crucial for the brain and it affects concentration. It is a good idea to keep sipping water while you are doing your exams,” Murphy says.
Brain-boosting supplements, such as Omega 3 and lecithin, tend to work in the long-term but there is no harm in starting to take them now.
However, the nutrients, minerals and vitamins in good food can be just as powerful. Calcium and magnesium in milk, for instance, are good antidotes to stress.
Other foods, such as turkey, chicken, eggs, yoghurt and bananas, contain tryptophan which promotes calmness and sleep.
“These are good things to eat in the evening. Tryptophan helps the body and mind to relax and it can also help you get a good night’s sleep,” explains Murphy.
Just as preparation is vital for the exams themselves, preparing what to eat — and when — is also really important.
The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute’s advice to students is simple: “Prepare, prepare, prepare.”
“During the exam period, try to have a stock of healthy foods, drinks and snacks that you have pre-planned so when those moments of boredom, weariness, panic come along, you are well-prepared.”
And remember, it will all be over in just a few weeks.
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