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Brain food: Preparing for exams

Stress is a common issue, especially for students studying for exams or feeling pressured to complete course assignments on time. Although some stress, every now and again is fine, constant or longer-term stress may start to have negative impacts on health and wellbeing.

Let’s talk about brain food

I was delighted to be ask recently to provide nutrition advice on BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café programme with Chef Neil Forbes (the recording is available for the next few weeks here). The program focused on brain food. With exams looming, students Maeve and Cameron from the University of Edinburgh were keen to hear more about what foods they could eat to help manage their stress levels and help them study. Chef Neil Forbes demonstrated how to make a very tasty and simple gnocchi with aubergine, tomato, red pepper and basil (the recipe is available on the BBC Radio Scotland website). It was so good, I made it myself later on in the week!

Below are some top tips on what to eat to help you manage exam stress and help you study.

Eat regularly – Small regular meals (every 2-4 hours) throughout the day will help maintain your energy levels and mood, while reducing tiredness and irritability.

Opt for unprocessed carbohydrates - such as wholegrain bread, pasta and cereals as well as oats and brown rice will help release the mood-boosting hormone – serotonin which will help you feel more relaxed. Complex carbohydrates provide slow-release energy which can help stabilise blood sugars.

Eat a rainbow – of fruit and vegetables in order to get a wide variety of vitamins, mineral and antioxidants to help support your immune system. Stress can weaken your immune system, so aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Foods with magnesium - this mineral is needed for a variety of functions such as muscle and nerve function and heartbeat regulation. Low intakes of magnesium are quite common in the UK. Having a small handful of plain nuts, especially Brazil nuts, will help provide a variety of mineral including magnesium. Other food to include are green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, brown rice, wholegrain bread, fish, lean meat and dairy foods to obtain adequate magnesium.

Omega-3 fatty acids – almost two thirds of your brain is made up of fat, with half of it being omega-3 fats. Aim to have two portions of fish a week, with one of them an oily fish such as salmon, trout or mackerel. If you don’t like fish, then look out for omega-3 enriched foods such as eggs, some yogurts, plant-based drinks and spreads.

Keep hydrated – Even mild dehydration can negatively impact your concentration and ability to perform tasks that require your attention, memory or brain processing skills. Having water throughout the day, will help keep you hydrated. 6-8 glasses of fluid a day is recommended. (For more info on hydration see my previous article here).

Go easy on the caffeine – Although caffeine in coffee or tea can improve your alertness in the short-term, too much can be detrimental. European guidelines advise that caffeine intakes of up to 400mg a day (about 3-4 cups of coffee) shouldn’t cause any problems, as long as you’re not pregnant (EFSA, 2015).

Limit alcohol – although alcohol may make you feel more relaxed, if you regularly drink more than the government alcohol limits and unit guidelines, it could increase your stress levels. Both men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

Feed your good gut bacteria – Having a healthy gut microbiome will help with the digestion of food, as well as having a healthy immune system and central nervous system. There are lots of ways to help keep your gut microbiome healthy: eat a variety of foods, include prebiotic foods such as bananas, asparagus, oats and apples, include probiotic foods such as live yogurts, kefir and sauerkraut, and choose wholegrains where possible.

Some healthy snack suggestions

  • Wholegrain crackers/rice cakes with nut butter and sliced apple or pear

  • Oatcakes and cheese with some grapes.

  • Plain yoghurt topped with mixed seeds/berries

  • A handful of plain or spiced nuts (check salt content is low, (6g max salt per day))

  • Fruit kebabs

  • A slice of malt loaf or fruit loaf

  • Cherry tomato, basil and mozzarella sticks

  • Vegetable sticks or wholegrain pitta bread with dips (hummus, mashed avocado or cottage cheese)

  • Watermelon, feta and mint salad

  • Fruit and nut oat bar.

  • Wholemeal pancakes with yoghurt and fruit

  • A slice of wholegrain toasted bread with salmon or smoked mackerel flakes.

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