Brain Foods for Top Test and Exam Performance

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Learn the best foods to eat and drink when studying and an eating strategy for exam day that will prep your brain for top mental performance.

young man studying surrounded by books

How would describe how you want to feel on the day of an important test?

I imagine you’d say “well-rested, alert, and laser-focused, but with an inner calm and confidence.”

Unfortunately, living on coffee, energy drinks, and junk food while cramming for exams is pretty common.

No wonder many students find themselves feeling exhausted, unfocused, and like a bundle of nerves on the day of a big test.

Here’s how to eat and drink for success on tests and exams.

Upgrade Your Diet Before Your Exams

Too many students live on junk food and yet expect maximum performance from their brain.

This is an unreasonable expectation!

Treat your brain like the exquisite, powerful machine it is.

Give it the highest quality fuel on a regular basis, not just the day before a test.

Of the myriad diets and eating plans to choose from, the Mediterranean diet is widely considered the healthiest eating plan of all.

Those who eat this way rank high in overall health and longevity, and stay mentally sharp for the long haul. (1)

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes these unprocessed foods — fruits, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, nuts, whole grains, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, yogurt, and meat, topped off with a little red wine.

Many popular ethnic cuisines — Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian — can easily meet the criteria of a Mediterranean-based eating plan.

Here’s a visual of what’s included in the Mediterranean diet.

chart illustrating the mediterranean diet food pyramid
The Mediterranean diet is widely considered the healthiest eating plan of all. (Image courtesy of Oldways.com)

Best Brain Foods to Eat Before an Exam

Now that you’ve got the big picture, let’s look at specific foods you’ll want to include in your diet.

These foods all have well-deserved reputations as brain foods.

They have been studied and proven to help you learn, remember, focus, and stay motivated.

It might sound overstated that certain foods can help your brain work better until you realize that they contain nutrients that:

  • Provide the building blocks of neurotransmitters
  • Increase blood flow to the brain
  • Stimulate the formation of new brain cells
  • Repair existing brain cells
  • Form the structural components of brain cells
  • Protect brain cells from damage and aging

1. Avocados

Avocados are unlike any other fruit.

They are loaded with monounsaturated fats, the same kind of healthy fat found in olive oil. (2)

Avocados can improve blood flow to the brain. (3)

They are an excellent source of vitamins your brain needs like C, E, K, and B complex. (4)

Avocados are high in tyrosine, an amino acid that’s a precursor to dopamine, the brain chemical that keeps you motivated and focused. (5)

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2. Omega-3-Rich Foods

There are two main omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

The brain benefits of omega-3 fats are derived mostly from DHA which is found in high concentrations in the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory, language, creativity, and attention. (6)

Since DHA is a primary structural component of the brain, people low in DHA actually have measurably smaller-than-average brains! (7)

The best food sources of omega-3s are animals allowed to get their food from their natural habitat: (8)

  • wild-caught fish
  • grass-fed beef
  • pasture-raised pork
  • free-range chicken
  • wild game

They have significantly more omega-3s than their mass-produced counterparts.

3. Walnuts

Walnuts are the only nut that contains substantial amounts of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the plant form of omega-3 essential fatty acids. (9)

They are among the few foods that contain mood-elevating serotonin. (10)

Eating walnuts can improve your ability to learn and remember. (11)

4. Eggs

Eggs are the top food source of choline, a nutrient that few of us get enough of. (12)

Choline is a B complex-related nutrient that is important because it is a precursor of acetylcholine. (13)

And don’t worry about the cholesterol found in eggs.

Your brain needs cholesterol.

Your brain is 60% fat by dry weight and includes 25% of your body’s total cholesterol. (1415)

5. Berries

Berries of all kinds are bursting with flavonoids, potent antioxidants that protect brain cells from oxidative damage.

Flavonoids help to improve memory, learning, and decision-making. (16)

If you can’t find fresh berries at a reasonable price, opt for frozen.

Surprisingly, frozen berries contain more nutrients than fresh. (17)

6. Dark Chocolate

Chocolate contains a little caffeine, just enough to boost memory, mood, and concentration, but not enough to make you feel wired.

It stimulates blood flow to the brain to aid memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem solving. (18)

And due to the feel-good compounds anandamide and phenylethylamine, chocolate gives you a happy buzz that’s been described like being in love.

7. Turmeric

Turmeric is an Indian spice that’s been used for thousands of years as a brain tonic.

Its main active components are curcumin and turmerone.

Curcumin elevates levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that acts like fertilizer to promote new brain cell growth. (19)

Turmerone stimulates the production of new neurons and encourages the brain to repair itself. (20)

As little as a half-teaspoon a day is all you need.

You can easily get that by cooking with turmeric, sprinkling it on your food, adding it to smoothies, making turmeric tea, or even topping your coffee with it.

8. Olive Oil

Olive oil is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet.

Olive oil’s monounsaturated fats are known for being “heart healthy” but are equally good for your brain.

Increased intake of monounsaturated fats is linked to better memory and other cognitive functions. (21)

Monounsaturated fats increase the production and release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. (22)

Olive oil also contains significant amounts of vitamins E and K which are important for memory and the prevention of mental decline. (23)

When buying olive oil, quality matters a lot since it can be rancid, poor quality, and adulterated with other oils.

Sometimes it’s not olive oil at all!

It pays to always buy the best extra virgin olive oil you can find.

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9. Sea Vegetables

Sea vegetables are some of the best sources of tyrosine, the amino acid needed to create dopamine. (24)

They are one of the few dietary sources of iodine, a mineral critical to brain health and function.

When iodine was added to table salt in the US in the 1920s, there was a noticeable increase in average IQ. (25)

Toasted nori makes a tasty snack on its own.

You may already be familiar with nori — the green sheets used to wrap sushi.

reminder

Brain-Healthy Diet

Start following a Mediterranean-style diet.

Emphasize the above brain foods in your diet.

For brain-healthy meal suggestions, check out our 50 Yummy & Healthy Brain Food Recipes.

What to Drink for Peak Test Performance

Now that you know the best brain foods to eat to prep for your exams, it’s time to discuss what you should and shouldn’t be drinking.

What you drink and how much you drink can make or break your brain-enhancing efforts.

Stay Hydrated

It’s critical that you stay properly hydrated while studying and during your exams.

Your brain is 73% water and it takes only 2% dehydration to diminish your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills. (2627)

Even mild dehydration adversely affects short-term memory, concentration, and alertness. (28)

The effects of dehydration on the brain are so profound that it can mimic the symptoms of dementia.

How much do you need to drink?

A good rule of thumb is to divide your weight in pounds by two and drink that many ounces of water per day.

equations to use to calculate how much water you should drink
Use this hydration calculator to determine the amount of water you need to drink to stay hydrated. (Image courtesy of University of Missouri)

If you exercise — and hopefully you do — you’ll need more.

Check out this online hydration calculator by Camelbak.com.

It takes into account the type, intensity, and duration of your exercise activity, and the temperature and cloud cover when you exercise outdoors.

If you have trouble remembering to drink enough, apps like Waterlogged or Daily Water remind you to drink more.

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Drink Caffeine Strategically

Caffeine is the world’s favorite mind-altering drug. (29)

People around the world rely on it to upgrade their memory, mood, focus, and productivity. (30)

And while some caffeine might be helpful, too much can leave you irritable, sleepless, and anxious.

Caffeine is responsible for four recognized psychiatric disorders including caffeine-induced anxiety, so respectfully consume caffeine in moderation. (31)

If you consume caffeine regularly, I suggest you experiment with various natural sources of caffeine to determine the best source and dosage, and the ideal cut-off time, so that it doesn’t interfere with your sleep.

It can take as little as two, or as many as ten, hours after ingesting caffeine to metabolize half of it. (32)

But of course, do your experimenting well before exam time to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Then during the 24-hour period leading up to the exam, drink caffeine strategically.

You want to be in the “Goldilocks zone” — just the right amount of caffeine to make you feel alert and mentally sharp, but not jittery.

This is not the time to drink either significantly more or less caffeine than usual.

The Best and Worst Caffeine Sources

The source of your caffeine really does matter.

Traditional brews such as coffee, various teas, and yerba mate are loaded with antioxidants, flavonoids, and other beneficial compounds that nourish and protect your brain and increase mental vitality.

Consider green tea if you struggle with caffeine-induced jitters or anxiety.

It contains the calming compounds l-theanine and EGCG which affect your brain waves, putting you in a state of relaxed focus. (33, 34)

On the other hand, caffeinated sodas and energy drinks are not healthy choices.

They are laden with sugar and chemicals, and contain synthetic caffeine created in laboratories. (35)

Energy drinks are responsible for tens of thousands of visits to the emergency room each year, and sadly, a handful of deaths. (36)

And don’t be impressed by added ingredients like B vitamins or taurine.

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, any performance enhancement from energy drinks comes from sugar and caffeine, not from these other ingredients. (37)

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Drink Alcohol Moderately

(This information is directed at those who are of legal drinking age.)

Moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages of all kinds can positively impact memory. (38)

The key word here is moderate.

In the US, the official definition of moderate is one daily drink for women and two for men.

Here’s a look at what constitutes one drink.

chart showing alcoholic drink equivalencies
Each of these constitutes one drink. (Image courtesy of Lehigh University)

Binge drinking, on the other hand, damages dendrites — the nerve connections between brain cells. (39)

Alcohol abuse impairs communication between brain cells and slows down the central nervous system. (40)

The brains of teens and young adults, which are not fully formed until around 25 years of age, are particularly vulnerable to memory loss and cognitive impairment from excessive drinking. (41)

Ditch Sugary Drinks

The average person gets an alarming number of their daily calories from soft drinks, energy drinks, and lattes.

They are usually loaded with sugar, a non-nutritive food-like substance that is bad news for your brain.

Sugar been linked to memory impairment, learning disorders, and shortened attention span. (43)

Read more —
If you regularly consume sugar, you’ll find a step-by-step plan for quitting sugar here: How to Stop Sugar Cravings (+ 8-Step Plan to Stop Eating Sugar).

Sugar increases brain inflammation which contributes to memory loss, brain fog, and inability to focus as well as depression, anxiety, and numerous psychiatric and neurological disorders. (44)

As with caffeine, if you decide to cut back on sugar, do it long before exam time.

Sugar is an addictive substance and sugar withdrawal can lead to headaches, fatigue, and anxiety — nothing you want to experience just before your test!

reminder

Brain-Healthy Drinks

Determine how much water you need, then start drinking!

Drink caffeine and alcohol in moderation.

Get your caffeine from natural sources and minimize consumption of soda and energy drinks.

If you consume too much caffeine, sugar, or alcohol and decide to cut back, do this well before exam time.

What to Eat the Day of Your Test

Your diet should provide the perfect balance of foods that will keep you focused and energized, alert yet calm.

Here is how to eat right the day of the test, meal by meal.

Eat a Substantial Breakfast

I can’t emphasize the importance of this strongly enough — eat a substantial breakfast!

Research confirms over and over that students of all ages who eat breakfast feel more alert, have better concentration, and perform better on tests than those who skip breakfast. (45)

Children who participate in school breakfast programs are all-around better, happier, and healthier students. (46)

Teens who eat breakfast get higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) test scores. (47)

Having breakfast doesn’t mean grabbing a cup of coffee and a snack bar.

It should be a true meal and contain at least 20% of your day’s calorie allotment.

People who eat a balanced breakfast that contains protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates (the kind found in whole plant foods) do significantly better on mental tasks than those who eat a breakfast of simple, refined carbs like cold cereal, bagels, or donuts. (48)

The caffeine in coffee and tea will help you stay alert and concentrate, so if you usually have some in the morning, have some today.

But don’t consume more than usual — too much can add to your test anxiety.

Here are a few examples of well-rounded, sustaining breakfasts high in brain foods:

  • Frittata seasoned with turmeric and rosemary with a side of apple and nut butter
  • Sprouted grain bread topped with avocado, tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil
  • Full-fat Greek yogurt topped with berries, walnuts, and shredded coconut
  • Breakfast smoothie with whey protein, fruit, cocoa powder, and coconut or almond milk
Read more —
You’ll find more brain-smart breakfast ideas here.

You don’t have to stick with standard breakfast fare either.

In many cultures, savory dishes typically eaten at lunch or dinner are served for breakfast as well.

Have Protein, Fat, and Carbs at Every Meal

If your test is in the afternoon or evening, you should be eating a balance of healthy fats, protein, and carbs at lunch and 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.

Read more —
Here are some more ideas for brain-healthy main courses and side dishes.

You need complex carbs that turn into glucose to fuel 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.

Eat Brain-Healthy Snacks

If you need to snack during the day, stick to healthy snacks that aren’t going to have your blood sugar rapidly rising and falling.

Having some protein and good fats along with complex carbohydrates 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.

Read more —
For more brain-healthy snack ideas, check out 25 Tasty Snacks Featuring the Best Brain Foods.

reminder

Eating on Test Day

Eat a healthy breakfast.

Drink plenty of water and don’t alter your usual caffeine consumption.

Include healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and a protein source at all of your test day meals and snacks.

Food Tips for During the Exam

Depending on what you are allowed to have with you during your exam, you may want to try one or more of these tips.

Drink Water

The stress of taking exams can be dehydrating.

So bring a bottle of water to your test and sip it regularly to stay hydrated.

Even the slightest bit of dehydration can impact your memory.

It’s been shown that students who drink water during their exams score up to 10% higher than those who don’t. (49)

Chew Gum

When I was a student, we weren’t allowed to chew gum in school.

I hope that’s changed because students who chew gum have better test scores.

Chewing gum boosts accuracy rates and reaction times while increasing ability to concentrate and focus.

Chewing gum increases the blood flow to the brain while decreasing stress. (50)

Eat Mints

Eating mints has a similar effect to chewing gum, especially if they are peppermint.

Just a whiff of peppermint improves concentration, memory, and attention span. (51)

Or you might want to try green tea mints.

Green tea is high in antioxidants which protect the brain and promote neurotransmitters that can improve recall and enhance your mood.

Two brands to try are Sencha Naturals or Trader Joe’s green tea mints which contain mint plus real green tea extract.

Sniff Rosemary

Students in ancient Greece wore crowns of rosemary to improve their mental performance when taking exams.

While that probably isn’t going to work for you ?, you can experience similar benefits by inhaling rosemary essential oil. (52)

Just a whiff of the scent of rosemary can improve cognitive speed, accuracy, and mood while reducing feelings of anxiety. (53)

When you inhale rosemary, its active compounds actually enter your bloodstream.

One compound in rosemary, 1,8-cineole, is responsible for its pleasant scent and an increase in acetylcholine. (54)

reminder

During the Exam

Bring water and sip it during your test.

Chew gum or bring mints, if allowed.

Dab some peppermint or rosemary essential oil on your wrists and discreetly take a quick sniff when you need a mental boost.

Eating for Best Exam Performance: Take the Next Step

Your brain performs best when you’ve fueled it with the right foods.

Follow a Mediterranean-style diet and include plenty of the best brain foods.

Well-balanced meals and snacks that contain some healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and protein will give your brain the energy and nutrients it needs to perform its best throughout the entire school year — not just at test time.

If you normally drink caffeinated beverages, use caffeine strategically to enhance your brain function at test time without leaving you a sleepless, anxious wreck.

And, of course, avoid brain-draining foods like sugar and excess alcohol, especially when preparing for a test.

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