Learn the best foods to eat when studying and an eating strategy for the day of the exam that will have you in peak mental condition.
If you could describe exactly how you want to feel the day of an important exam, I imagine you’d say you want to feel well-rested, alert, and laser-focused, but with an inner sense of calm and confidence.
Unfortunately, existing on coffee, energy drinks, and junk food while cramming for exams is pretty common.
No wonder the day of the test finds many students feeling exhausted, unfocused, and a bundle of nerves!
In this article, I’ll review brain food for exams — the foods you should be eating to be the best student you can be.
Make these foods part of your normal diet and you’ll be giving your brain the energy and nutrients it needs to perform its best.
Start Eating These Brain Foods Sooner than Later
You should be eating a brain food diet long before the night of the exam.
There is no magic food you can eat the day of your test that will suddenly turn you into a genius. Sorry.
If an important test looms on your horizon, starting today eat a diet that contains generous amounts of all of the following:
- antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, especially berries, citrus fruit, and peppers
- protein sources that are high in brain-essential omega-3 fatty acids like grass-fed meat, cage-free eggs and poultry, and cold-water oily fish
- healthy complex carbohydrates such as carrots, potatoes, sprouted grain breads, and oatmeal
- good fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives
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I realize some people might be reading this looking for brain food for kids.
So this next tip is for adults only.
Top off dinner with some green tea, a glass of red wine, and dark chocolate for an additional brain boost.
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Top Brain Power Foods
You might be looking for specific foods that you should eat before an exam.
I’ve done a lot of research looking for the ultimate top brain foods list.
There are plenty of lists and none of them list exactly the same foods.
And how could the “powers that be” know which are the brain foods you need the most?
They don’t! Every list is different.
However, there are a handful of foods that show up on almost every list.
So here is my short list of what are considered the top brain boosting foods:
- nuts of all kinds, especially walnuts
- dark chocolate
- wild-caught salmon (not farm raised)
- green leafy vegetables including sea vegetables
- fermented foods like yogurt and raw sauerkraut
- olive oil
- coconut oil
- naturally caffeinated drinks especially green tea, coffee, and yerba mate
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What to Eat While You Study
If you find you want to nibble on snack food while you study, there’s a good reason for this.
It seems the act of chewing increases concentration even when it’s not giving you the blood sugar boost you get from food.
No one really seems to know why for sure, but studies have demonstrated that chewing gum (whether with sugar or sugar-free) boosts test scores and might be a better study aid than caffeine!
If you do snack, stick to healthier snacks that aren’t going to have your blood sugar rapidly rising and falling.
Having some protein and good fats along with your carbs slows down digestion and keeps your blood sugar level stable.
Some delicious snack combinations that are healthy and satisfy the urge to chew would be raw veggies with a yogurt dip, crackers with hummus, corn chips with guacamole, trail mix, or an apple with cheese or peanut butter.
Stay well hydrated. Drink plenty of water and go easy on caffeine.
A little caffeine can help you concentrate.
Too much caffeine will keep you from getting the sleep you need and can add to your test anxiety.
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Eating Right on the Big Day
You need to find that perfect balance of foods that will keep you awake and alert without adding to your nervousness.
Here are the best tips for eating right the day of the test.
Even if your exam is later in the day, you need to fuel your brain properly from the start of the day.
Research shows skipping breakfast can lead to a 20-40% reduction in concentration, memory, and alertness.
Eat a balance of healthy carbs and protein.
Have some protein such as yogurt, eggs, bison sausage, or a protein shake with a side of fruit, oatmeal, or sprouted grain toast.
No pancakes with syrup today.
Research has verified that people who eat a balanced breakfast (half carbs and half protein) do significantly better on mental tasks than people who eat a high carb breakfast.
The caffeine in coffee and tea helps you concentrate, so if you usually have some in the morning, have some today.
But don’t alter your caffeine consumption much from your norm anytime during this day.
If you take in too little, you’ll be a zombie, and if you take in too much, it will make you feel nervous and jittery.
15 Links Between Caffeine and Anxiety
Have Protein, Fat, and Carbs at Every Meal
If your test is in the afternoon or evening, you should be eating a balance of protein and carbs at lunch and/or dinner too.
This will balance your blood sugar and brain chemistry.
You need protein to provide amino acids that create dopamine and norepinephrine.
These brain chemicals make you feel more alert, attentive, and energetic.
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You need complex carbs that turn into glucose which fuels your brain.
Carbs also create serotonin which can help you feel calm and put you in a positive frame of mind about your test.
And having some healthy fats can keep you feeling full longer and help stabilize your blood sugar levels.
This will keep your growling stomach from distracting you and maybe your fellow students.
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During the Exam
If you’re allowed to bring water, do so and sip it regularly.
(I think not being allowed to have water with you at all times is inhumane. I’ve been known to sneak a small water bottle in my purse.)
If water is not allowed, fill up at the water fountain before you go in to take the test.
Even the slightest bit of dehydration can impact your memory, so do what it takes to stay hydrated.
It’s been shown that students who drink water during their exams score up to 10% higher than those who don’t.
Also, try chewing gum or sucking mints.
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I’m not a gum chewer, but love mints.
I’m partial to Sen Cha or Trader’s Joe’s green tea mints which contain decaffeinated green tea extract (three mints = 1 cup of tea).
Green tea is high in antioxidants which protect the brain and promote neurotransmitters that can improve recall and enhance your mood.
Stick With the Familiar
One last suggestion is that you don’t want to drastically change your diet or eat foods you aren’t accustomed to 24 hours prior to the test.
The last thing you need is to have a bad reaction to something new.
If you don’t normally consume energy drinks or brain tonic drinks, you might be tempted to try them for your test, but today is not the day to experiment.
While many people swear by them, reported side effects of these drinks include nausea and headaches.