With the final year exams approaching it’s a good time to review what your child is eating to ensure their brain is performing at its peak during study and exams. Cognitive functions, such as learning and memory, are influenced by a variety of factors including nutrition.
Certain foods have been shown to improve brain function, clarity, concentration, mood and how well we are able to perform crucial thinking and memory tasks. On the flip side, excessive consumption of energy-dense, low fibre, high-fat foods are associated with reduced academic performance.
The following nutrition tips are also suitable for any child to improve their concentration and behaviour at school.
When it comes to carbohydrates they are your brain’s best friend. However, it’s important to choose the right ones. Choose low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates. These are known as slow-release carbohydrates because they are broken down slowly, giving sustained energy and a feeling of fullness. With low GI foods, blood glucose levels gently rise and fall over time as opposed to high GI foods which are broken down rapidly, giving quick energy. As a result, glucose levels quickly spike and crash, which can leave you feeling tired and losing concentration.
The main source of fuel for the brain is carbohydrates therefore it is important to include a low GI carbohydrate in the meal prior to an exam, and throughout the day at school.
Low GI foods generally are less processed carbohydrates and include wholegrain bread, wholemeal pita bread, sourdough, plain untoasted muesli, rolled oats (not quick or instant oats), long grain rice (e.g. basmati), black rice, pasta, pearl barley, pearl couscous, quinoa, wholegrain crackers, legumes and lentils, milk and yoghurt, and most fruit.
High GI foods to avoid include white bread, bagels, crumpets, English muffins, instant oats, refined cereals (e.g. coco pops, rice bubbles), instant noodles, short grain rice (e.g. arborio), corn cakes, rice cakes and crackers, plain biscuits and crackers, lollies and soft drink.
For more information on Glycaemic Index see here.
Diets high in omega-3 have shown to increase blood flow to areas of the brain associated with learning and memory. Omega-3 fats are also linked with improved mood, reduced risk of developing depression, and improvement in behaviour of children with ADHD.
Foods high in omega-3 include oily fish (fresh salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel), nuts, seeds and their oils (e.g. walnuts, pumpkin and chia seeds), vegetable oils (e.g. canola and linseed), and soy products (e.g. soybeans, soy milk and tofu).
For more information on Omega-3 go to this link.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, have been shown to be essential for optimal brain function and cognitive performance. Furthermore, combining protein with carbohydrates can slow the digestion of carbohydrates which will keep you feeling full for longer and prevent any blood sugar lows during study or an exam.
Aim to eat protein from a wide variety of sources to ensure you are covering all the essential nutrients. High protein foods include beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish and seafood, eggs, dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt), nuts and nut butters, seeds, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils), soy products (soy milk, soybeans, tofu).
Eat a rainbow
Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (red, orange, yellow, purple, and green) are particularly rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals. A high intake of these is known to support brain function, intellectual ability, and academic performance. Aim to include 1-2 serves of fruit, and 5 serves of vegetables per day. Include a fruit or vegetable with every meal and snack and rotate between a wide variety of bright colours to cover all the nutrients.
One of the best ways to maximise focus is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, and reduced concentration. Ensure you are drinking enough on the days leading up to an exam as well as on the day of the exam. Avoid soft drinks, juices, smoothies with large amounts of fruit, and energy drinks that are high in sugar and high GI and can lead to blood glucose highs and lows.
There is no right amount of water for everyone. The amount of water a person needs depends on your body weight, the weather, and your activities during the day. The best way to know if you’re well hydrated is to check the colour of your urine. If it’s pale yellow, then you are having enough.
Everyone deserves a treat! Certain foods, particularly those rich in sugars and fat, are potent rewards. They release several neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, which make us feel good but also drive us to want more of these foods. While it’s not realistic to avoid these foods altogether, save high sugar, high fat treat foods until after an exam or study session, at the weekend, or just prior to exercise to burn off the sugar.
Healthier nutrient-dense snacks
- Dark chocolate – It has half the amount of sugar as milk chocolate and is high in flavonoids (a powerful antioxidant), a natural source of GABA (a neurotransmitter that is calming), and a source of dopamine, a neurotransmitter and hormone that makes you feel good and improves memory. Nuts or berries dipped in dark chocolate are a great healthy treat.
- Popcorn – Homemade with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, is a great alternative to a packet of chips. It’s 100% wholegrain, low GI, and contains a range of nutrients including polyphenols, vitamins B1, B3, B6, magnesium, and iron.
- Nuts – help learning and cognition and are a rich source of protein, healthy fats, omega 3, fibre, vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, zinc, magnesium, and iron.
- Homemade biscuits, cakes and slices containing oats, seeds and/or nuts. See my low GI slice and low GI chocolate cake recipes on the website.
Meal ideas prior to an exam or before school
Low GI plus protein
- Rolled oats or untoasted muesli with Greek yoghurt and berries
- Smoked salmon and avocado wholegrain wrap
- Wholegrain bread with a protein filling (e.g. chicken, ham, or cheese) and salad
- Leftovers such as Spaghetti Bolognese, walnut pesto pasta, lentil and vegetable soup, chicken curry and basmati rice with vegetables
- Wholegrain toast with scrambled eggs and/or baked beans
- Ham and cheese toasted sandwich with wholegrain bread
- Buckwheat pancakes with berries
- Toasted quesadilla with black beans, spinach, mushrooms and cheese
- For more ideas go here.
Last but not least
- Don’t skip meals. Aim to eat every 3-4 hours to maintain blood glucose levels
- Exercise regularly
- Get enough sleep, and