Eating for Exam Performance without Compromising Performance

Not only do the warmer, longer days signal the wind up to the summer but they also signal that critical time of year for getting your academic prowess measured by the often-dreaded exams.  Whether you are enrolled in high school or tertiary study, there is no denying that exams can be a disruptive and often stressful period.  

Check out these A+ nutrition tips for exam performance without compromising your A+ high performance.

  1. Eat regular, nutritious meals and snacks over the course of the day to keep both your brain and body functioning for study and training respectively.  Three main meals and at least two to three snacks is a good rule of thumb. Especially aim to eat foods high in the B-group vitamins, iron, and zinc for optimal brain performance.
  2. Include plenty of nutrient dense snacks and resist the urge to snack on high sugar, high fat, high energy, and high caffeine snacks such as lollies, cakes, slices, chocolate, take-aways, chips, biscuits, fizzy and energy drinks.
  3. Take regular breaks from study and eat away from your study area to refresh the brain.  A brisk walk in the fresh air works wonders to emit endorphins therefore alleviating stress but it also helps you sleep better at night, enhances your mood and concentration, and reduces unnecessary snacking.
  4. Eat tuna or salmon at least twice a week for a good dose of omega-3 fats for brain function and protein for muscle repair.  
  5. Avoid reducing your energy intake or adopting a significantly different style of eating than what you are used to over the exam period.  Elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels as a result of stress along with a restricted energy intake will increase your risk of getting sick.  It is one thing to try and manage exams and training let alone sickness on top of that.  This is a good reason to aim to stay healthy and eat enough to support your energy requirements.  
  6. Stay well hydrated.  Poor hydration can lead to poor food choices as thirst can often be mistaken for hunger.  Plus, dehydration causes fatigue, lethargy, poor concentration, constipation, and bloating.  Water is the best option for drinking while studying.  Pale straw-coloured urine means you are well hydrated.
  7. Ensure you are getting enough sleep.  Not only will sleep deprivation compound stress and decrease your ability to concentrate, but it can increase your risk of getting sick and of making poor food choices as you look for quick boosts of high sugar, high fat, or high caffeine snacks in any attempt to perk you up. 
  8. Like pinnacle events for your sport, exams are also a time for keeping familiarity in your routine so stick to meals and snacks that you know won’t cause you any gut distress.  Make use left-overs or cook and freeze meals in advance. Heat and eat with little fuss and minimal dishes so that there is extra time in your day for study and exercise.  Just don’t forget to reheat until the meal is piping hot!  Boost the vegetable content of the meal with ready-made salad or pre-portioned cook in a bag frozen mixed vegetables.
  9. Caffeine can be both friend and foe for exams.  If you are a habitual caffeine drinker, then a relaxing coffee break can be a pleasant way to get away from the books.  But be mindful of using caffeine to “help” you survive the study period.  Too much caffeine causes side effects that are not conducive to effective study.   It will cause your heart rate to increase, impair concentration, make you jittery, and inhibit good quality sleep during a time when you need it most!
  10. Reduce your chance of getting sick, wash your hands regularly or use a hand sanitizer, minimize hand to face contact, and avoid sitting close to others who are sniffing, coughing, and sneezing.  Studying for exams often results in extended periods of time confined to libraries and in close proximity to others who may not be doing as a great a job as yourself of looking after themselves during a potentially busy and stressful time.  If you do feel yourself getting sick, isolate yourself from others especially if living with other fellow athletes and get yourself an appointment with your Sports Physician.

Finally, if you are feeling overwhelmed about juggling your exam and training commitments, book in with your Athlete Life Advisor or Mental Skills Coach or talk to your coach about adjusting your training load to make it more manageable around your exam commitments.  Don’t leave it to the last minute, it will compound unnecessary stress. 

A+ Snacks

  • Fresh fruit and yoghurt
  • Small handful of nuts.  Add dried fruit and/or seeds
  • Whole grain crackers with hummus or cream cheese and sliced tomato
  • Smoothie
  • Canned tuna/salmon on crackers
  • Wholegrain toast with peanut butter
  • Muesli and calcium enriched milk
  • Chopped carrots and celery dipped in hummus.
  • Vegetable based salads
  • Wholegrain sandwich, wrap, or roll with salad and chicken
  • Sushi – especially salmon avocado options 
  • Soup

Quick and Easy Meal Ideas:

  • Hot chicken, wholegrain roll, and salad
  • Baked beans and eggs on wholegrain toast with avocado and spinach
  • Canned tuna, salmon, or chicken served with green salad and a wholegrain wrap
  • Hearty vegetable and chicken soup with fresh wholegrain bread
  • Cereal with fruit and yoghurt
  • Pizza made on a wholegrain wrap or pita and served with salad
  • Steak, salad and a baked potato or kumara
  • Sushi
  • Gourmet burger served with salad.
  • Canned tuna or salmon stirred through pasta or rice served steamed vegetables or salad
  • Omelet or scrambled eggs served with vegetables and wholegrain bread
  • Stir fry beef or chicken with vegetables and brown rice