Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

The Exam Diet

With the exam season in full swing now's the time to boost your youngster's brain power by feeding them the right foods at the right time. If they're away at university make sure they understand the importance of the Exam Diet as no matter how much revision they've done, it won't help if their memory fails or they're fighting to stay awake when they sit in the exam room.

Everybody understands that athletes must be careful about what they eat. The weight lifter needs a different diet to the sprinter and the long distance runner has different nutritional needs than the high jumper. But when it comes to mental activity no-one thinks that food matters, and this couldn't be further from the truth. The right diet can make a difference between a pass or a fail, a first or second class degree, or an A and a C in GCSEs.

The first thing your brain needs is a constant supply of sugar to keep it working at peak level and you can achieve this by a regular pattern of eating the right foods. Surprisingly your biggest enemy is sugar as eating sweets, chocolates, energy bars or anything else with a high content gives you a short term boost followed by a sudden drop in the amount of sugar your blood contains. If you depend on these type of snacks to get you through the day then you're on a roller coaster of brain function which seriously interferes with concentration, memory and performance.

If you want your brain to do its job efficiently the first rule is that you must eat at regular intervals - at least every three hours. What you eat is also crucial as you need to ensure peak performance at the right time of day. The sugars you need must come mostly from unrefined starches like wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals, oats in porridge or muesli, rice, beans, and pasta. These all provide slow release energy which helps keep your blood sugar on an even keel and prevents brain-sapping highs and lows.

It's an appalling fact that the majority of children between 10 and 16 are seriously deficient in some of the vital nutrients especially vitamins A, B6, zinc and calcium but it's the lack of iron and folic acid in their diets that affects their mental powers, as these are needed to make sure that there is sufficient oxygen in their blood - the other essential for brain function. But it's really easy to avoid these problems and guarantee that the brain has everything it needs to cope with the extra demands of exam time. Just include a regular supply of these super brain foods.

The Super Brain Foods

Oily fish for essential fatty acids - Sardines, salmon, tuna, pilchards, herrings, mackerel

Prawns, shrimps and shellfish for zinc

All red meat and poultry for protein, iron and B vitamins

Wholegrain cereals for B vitamins and slow release energy

Nuts and seeds - pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, brazil nuts, walnuts and peanuts - for essential oils, zinc and selenium

Fresh fruit, salads and green vegetables for vitamins C, A and folic acid

Liver for vitamin A, iron and B12 (not if you're pregnant)

Rosemary, sage, basil and ginger all enhance brain function

As well as the right food a simple bit of exam success insurance can be had by taking a good multivitamin and mineral supplement. One study in a Welsh school tested the IQ of a group of children. For eight months they were then given a vitamin and mineral pill or a placebo and then their IQs were tested again. The improvement was five times better in the pill group than the placebo, so just increasing their nutritional intake had a direct effect on their intellectual ability.

It's not only what you eat but how you eat that can have a dramatic effect on exam results. For maximum concentration and brain power during exams your timetable will dictate what and when you eat. Meals rich in starchy foods like pasta, rice, bread, cakes and biscuits trigger the release of the hormone serotonin from the brain, which is relaxing and prepares you for sleep. High protein dishes like meat, fish, poultry, cheese and eggs are brain stimulating foods which encourage the production of activity hormones. Use basil to combat stress and anxiety without making you sleepy; rosemary to stimulate the cerebral cortex and improve memory; sage to intensify brain function and ginger to give your whole system a boost.

If exams are just around the corner it's no good trying to sit up till the small hours and cram, if you don't know it now, you never will - what you need for tomorrow is a good night's sleep. If you have exams morning and afternoon this is how you should be eating:-

Breakfast: High protein, not much starch -
large glass of fresh fruit juice,
a good chunk of your favourite cheese, a tomato and one slice of wholemeal toast or
one egg, lean grilled bacon and a low fat grilled sausage

Mid morning:
snack of dried apricots, raisins, dates and plain fresh nuts, and a banana.

Meat, chicken or fish with vegetables or a large mixed salad which includes basil and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds
A mug of ginger tea, half an inch of grated ginger root in a mug of boiling water, stand for 10 minutes covered, strain, add a teaspoon of honey or use a lemon and ginger teabag

Mid afternoon:
Cheese, hard boiled egg or hummus with raw carrot, red pepper and celery, and any fresh fruit

Evening meal: Now it's time for the carbohydrates -
Thick root vegetable casserole (see recipe) or
Pasta with tuna fish and basil (see recipe)
Quick and easy crumble (see recipe)
During the evening a handful of semi dried dates and a banana

During the day drink at least three to four pints of fluid, mostly water but including weak tea, herb teas, natural fruit and vegetable juices and not more than two cups of coffee. Sugar is your worst enemy so try avoiding it as much as possible.

If your mental faculties are needed in the evening, and you want a calm peaceful day, stick to cereals and bread for breakfast, the starch meal for lunch and the high protein meal for dinner.

If you stick to this pattern of eating during the exams your intellectual abilities will be at their peak when you need them and by bed time you'll be calm, peaceful and relaxed.

Supplements for better brains

Available from most health stores, chemists and some supermarkets.

BioStrath Elixir - a Swiss made natural herbal supplement which has been proved in studies to produce a 30 percent increase in marks for a combined set of language and maths tests over a 10 week period. There is also evidence that it increases the white cell count and so improves immunity and reduces the risk of picking up infections at this crucial time.

Ginkyo - a standardised extract of ginkgo biloba which although originally used for the improvement of short term memory loss in the elderly, has now been found by Professor Hindmarch at the University of Surrey to increase memory recall in healthy students with no short term memory problems.

Buzz Gum - Guarana chewing gum has a double benefit as the guarana itself is an excellent source of slow release energy and recent university studies demonstrate that the simple act of chewing increases wakefulness and concentration.

Multibionta - an excellent multivitamin and mineral formula to make up any existing deficiencies which also includes probiotic bacteria to improve digestive function and also the body's natural immunity and protection from other infections.


Bean and root vegetable casserole

1 large leek
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
3 tbspns rapeseed oil
1 swede
1 large parsnip
2 carrots
1 medium sweet potato
About 700ml (1 and a quarter pints)) vegetable stock
1 x 400g can crushed tomatoes
3 tbspns tomato puree
1 x 400g can broad beans
A good sprig of rosemary and 6 sage leaves.

1. Slice the leek
2. Chop the onion
3. Finely chop the garlic
4. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and sweat the leek, onion and garlic, stirring continuously, for 3 mins
5. Peel the root vegetable and cut into cubes
6. Add to the pan and stir to coat thoroughly
7. Add the stock, crushed tomatoes and tomato puree and bring to the boil
8. Add herbs, cover and simmer for 45 mins
9. Drain the broad beans, rinse thoroughly and add to the pan
10. Continue to simmer until beans and vegetable are all tender - about 10-15 mins


450 g / 1 lb green tagliatelle
6 spring onions, coarsely chopped including green parts
1 tbsp olive oil
400 g / 14 oz tuna canned in oil
half a dozen torn basil leaves
black pepper

Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Put the rest of the oil in a frying pan and very gently saute the spring onions till soft. Add the drained tuna and stir well until warmed through. Drain the pasta, return to the saucepan, and stir in the tuna and spring onion mixture. Serve sprinkled with the torn basil leaves and black pepper.

Apricot and Almond crumble

500g/1lb apricots - fresh or ready to eat
2tsp sugar
2tbs water
150g/6oz porridge oats
50g/2oz ground almonds
1tbs runny honey
1tbs flaked almonds
25g/1oz butter, cut into tiny pieces

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6. Lightly grease a pie dish. Put in the fruit - washed, and peeled or cut up if necessary. Add the sugar and the water. Mix the oats and ground almonds together and spread over the top of the fruit - there should be enough to make an inch thick coating. Drizzle the honey over the top. Scatter over the flaked almonds. Dot with the butter and put in the oven for 20 minutes.


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