The mind is a hungry beast: though it is an organ that’s only around 2 per cent of our body weight, when we are in a resting state, our brains burn an impressive 20 per cent of our energy reserves, according to Scientific American. And to operate effectively, it needs the right fuel at the right time. Considering the diet of the average 16-year-old, these facts might make teachers worry.
Don’t panic – help is at hand. All that students need is a little guidance and some tips for eating their way to success. What follows is everything that you need to know to provide that.
A successful revision diet should naturally provide stable energy throughout the day. It should also stabilise your mood, reduce anxiety and encourage brain activity.
Firstly, let’s understand the fuel that the brain needs. “The fuel that the brain uses is glucose, which is blood sugar,” explains Kevin Shore, a nutritionist who has worked with schools to hone lunch menus. “Complexcarbohydrate sources are best for this energy, as they take longer for the body to process and produce a slower release of energy. They don’t raise the blood sugar too quickly, so you avoid creating spikes that leave you lethargic when the sugar level drops.”
Complex carbohydrates include wholemeal pasta, wholegrain bread, wholegrain cereals, brown rice, oats, bananas, beans, chickpeas, sweet potato, nuts and sweetcorn.
But slow-release energy is just one part of a revision diet; complementing those complex carbohydrates with non-processed wholefood ingredients will have benefits during revision and exam season. Here are some other tips:
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, pumpkin seeds, ground flaxseed and walnuts, reduce mood instability and help communication between nerve cells in the brain.
Dark-green leafy veg, such as spinach and kale, contain magnesium, which calms us by regulating the levels of adrenal gland-created cortisol in our body. Turkey and sesame seeds boost serotonin (our body’s own self-made anti-depressant) thanks to their high level of an amino acid called tryptophan. Foods such as beans, citrus fruits and chicken can also help, owing to their high levels of B vitamins: B1 helps to control blood sugar, while B3 also helps to create serotonin.
Leafy greens are prominent here, too. They contain vitamin K, which research has shown boosts brain cell growth. But Vitamin C is another key brain nutrient. Not only does it boost your immune system (so you’re not ill on the exam day) but it has also been shown to improve mental agility by strengthening neurotransmitters. Blackcurrants, cranberries, pineapples, broccoli, tomatoes and peas are some of the most vitamin C rich foods. As are blueberries, which Tufts University, in Massachusetts, famously suggested can even improve short-term memory.
So you know what to tell your students to eat, but now you need to know when they have to consume all this grub. It’s pretty simple, says BDA-registered dietitian Sophie Claessens.
“It sounds really obvious, but three square meals are essential, especially when you’re revising,” she explains. “Unfortunately, a lot of students forget this.
“That’s not to say that we can’t enjoy snacks between meals. Fruit or breadsticks with a dip such as hummus or guacamole are great. They’ve got vitamins, minerals and fibre. Plain unsalted nuts are good, too, thanks to their natural fats and protein.”
As for one the exam day itself, Shore says that timing is crucial.
“Eat one or two hours before the exam so you’ve had time to digest the meal – that way, you should have a steady source of energy leading up to and during the exam,” he states. “Something quite filling with complex carbohydrates – such as muesli or wholegrain cereal and fruit for breakfast or brown basmati rice and a homemade chicken curry for lunch – will give you a steady energy supply for several hours. Avoid anything that’s high in sugar or fat that may leave you feeling drowsy and lethargic mid-exam.”
Another tip that has been promulgated for generations is that a bag of sweets during exams can help stave off that dreaded mid-exam fug. Cardiff-based nutritional therapist Joanne Jackson reckons that it shouldn’t be encouraged. “In my opinion, this is a myth,” she says, explaining that a square meal that provides energy for three to four hours should have a 1:1 ratio of slow-release carbohydrates and healthy fats such as fish, lean meat, eggs, low fat dairy or nuts.
“If a snack is required during the exam, then nuts and seeds are fantastic portable options. They have good protein content and are high in essential fats. Portion size is important – stick to a small handful.”
Of course, having all this information and passing it on to your students is one thing; making them act upon it is quite another. But if you explain the benefits of following these eating tips and clearly link the diet to success come exam time, you never know – they may shun the local McDonalds for the health food store next door. Well, high expectations are crucial to success, right?
Greek yogurt/live natural yogurt with unsweetened muesli or ground flaxseed
Scrambled eggs and tomato with rice cakes or wholegrain bread
Porridge oats with berries sprinkled with mixed seeds or chopped nuts.
NB Avoid fruit juice at breakfast, owing to the fast-releasing sugar.
Wholegrain sandwiches with avocado, cold cuts of turkey or chicken, hummus and salad
Mixed-bean salad with brown rice, tomato, onion, tofu, sweetcorn, parsley and crushed garlic
Egg-and-potato salad with watercress or rocket
Home-made soup (flask for lunch): potato, leek, pumpkin and spinach with lentils or beans.
Half an avocado, celery and grapes
A medium glass of vegetable juice and four Brazil or other nuts
Two oat/rice cakes spread with almond/cashew nut butter.
Revision menu supplied by Joanne Jackson, BSc Nutritional Medicine Nutritional Therapist. For more information, visit her website: www.whole-nutrition.co.uk
Dave Jenkins is a freelance writer and editor based in South Wales. He covers a variety of trade and consumer topics He tweets @davethejenkins