It’s that time of year again! Studying for exams can be pretty consuming all-round and it’s easy to let food slip down the list of priorities, but giving your (or your young adult’s) body the right nutrients can mean the difference between a productive session and a bit of a washout. Here are the main revision nutrition players:
Iron carries oxygen around the body to all the organs including the brain. If too little is eaten it can cause tiredness, lethargy and “brain-fog” – the exact opposite of what you need for focused, alert revision sessions. It is one of the few micronutrient deficiencies that is common in the UK, and among teenagers, girls are most at risk. This is for two reasons: their requirements for iron are higher – double that of a teenaged boy – and girls also tend to eat less iron-rich foods. Iron comes from red meat, beans, pulses, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified foods such as white flour products and breakfast cereals.
Iron from meat is readily absorbed but iron from plant sources requires vitamin C to convert it to a useable form. Adding some fruit and vegetables alongside will aid this process. Iron absorption is hindered by tannins, which are found in tea, and also by calcium so it’s a good idea to separate dairy and iron-rich foods sometimes.
The brain’s favourite energy source is glucose, so carbohydrates are revision nutrition essentials! As the body doesn’t keep large stores of carbs it’s necessary to get them from the diet at regular intervals. A teenager will need about five portions the size of their fist of carbohydrates every day, such as bread, rice, cereals, potatoes or pasta: some at each meal and the odd snack. This helps keep blood glucose levels nice and even, the brain alert, and hunger (and hunger-related mood swings) at bay.
After going all night without food the body needs some nutrients so breakfast is essential. Anything is better than nothing, but some slow-release carbohydrates such as in whole grain cereals and toast or porridge are ideal. Avoid anything with lots of sugar as this can contribute to irregular blood glucose levels. Adding some protein will keep them fuller for longer, eggs on granary toast is the breakfast of kings.
The body depends on good hydration for blood volume and pressure; the delivery of nutrients; and removal of waste products, among other things, so even mild dehydration can cause all kinds of problems with concentration and energy levels. Sipping fluids regularly throughout the day is the most effective way of keeping hydrated, but very sugary drinks may have the opposite effect. Juice is not hydrating, as it tends to draw fluids into the digestive tract rather than the other way around. Thirst is actually not the first dehydration signal. Early signs of dehydration can be quite subtle and non-specific such as fatigue, a lack of concentration and headaches.
Caffeine can be great for sharpening up and giving a boost if the will to study is waning. However if caffeine use causes even a mild degree of insomnia and interrupts sleep patterns, then any benefit is massively outweighed by the sleep deprivation. Caffeine’s peak action occurs about 20 minutes after drinking but it has a very long half-life so it hangs around in the body for about two weeks. This means it is very easy for it to build up even with only two cups of coffee a day.
Snacks are another opportunity to consume some nutrients and also provide a bit of respite in a busy timetable. Go for slow-release carbohydrates like whole grain bread or oatcakes topped with peanut butter, hoummous or cream cheese to boost the nutritional value. Vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables are used as catalysts and co-factors in nearly every process in the body so snack time is a great time to squeeze in another portion. A lower-sugar cereal bar is great for keeping in a bag for revision sessions outside the house and is much better than a sugary chocolate bar from the café or vending machine.
Nerves can play havoc with the digestive system and sometimes its difficult to face eating, so go for whatever you can manage. Try to stick to small meals and top up with snacks. Keep well hydrated and always take water into the exam room with you. When it’s over, you can cut loose and eat whatever you want, food is about celebration as well as nutrients!