It’s exam time. You’re stressed. You don’t have time to cook a healthy meal for yourself so what do you do?
“I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with cheese please, extra fries, and a large soda. Actually, make that a coffee, can you make it a triple shot of espresso?”
Not exactly the best food to eat before a test, is it?
The overload of refined carbohydrates, grease, sugar, and caffeine messes with our ability to form new memories, not to mention our energy levels, both of which are incredibly important aspects of learning.
This isn’t new information, though. You probably know what a healthy, balanced diet looks like (and no, Quarter Pounders aren’t in that eating plan). But, because you’re here reading this Brainscape post, you’re dedicated to finding out what the best brain foods are to eat before an exam.
In other words: to optimize your learning by eating the right foods.
As the brains and brawn behind the world’s most effective flashcards app, we here at Brainscape have come to learn just about all there is to know about studying effectively. And a fundamental aspect of studying smart is eating the right brain foods.
A healthy brain improves mental capacity, working memory, and focus, and makes you all-round healthier and more energized to learn. That’s why feeding your brain with the right nutrients is one of the most important ways to boost your brainpower. (We list another four tips for brainpower in this pretty awesome article on overall brain health.)
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the best food to eat before a test and the 10 dos and don'ts for the study diet.
Study diet 'do's:
- Bulk up on protein
- Include healthy fats
- Our hero antioxidants
- Consume complex carbohydrates
- Don’t forget water
Study diet 'don'ts':
- Overloading on sugar
- Overloading on refined carbohydrates
- Greasy fried foods
- Getting creative with eating habits
But first, why is it so important to eat a healthy diet, especially before a test?
The no-brainer benefits of a healthy diet
A fundamental aspect of studying smart is eating the right foods.
We’ve all been there: you eat a big meal, but instead of feeling energized to tackle that mountain of studying, you feel mentally exhausted and fuzzy. You’d far rather take a nap than think. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when you’re hungry—not just peckish but really hangry—it can feel just as hard to focus.
These two circumstances remind us of the fundamental connection between nutrition and brain function. The brain uses glucose to fuel cellular activities and this energy comes from the foods we consume daily. So, when you struggle to focus or feel mentally foggy, your brain is telling you that it needs something, whether that’s proper nutrition, hydration, or sleep.
Here are some of the short and long-term benefits of the right diet for brain health.
The short-term benefits of the right diet for brain health
- More energy: Feeding the brain starts with a healthy breakfast. Breakfast replenishes the energy reserves that have been used up over a night of fasting, which provides the essential fuel you need for a day of concentrating on your studies.
- Improved memory: Foods that are high in Omega-3 and antioxidants (think fatty fish and dark, leafy greens) build brain and nerve cells essential for your memory. On the other hand, foods that are high in cholesterol and saturated fats reduce blood flow to the brain and impede working memory.
- Deeper sleep: Eating the right foods throughout the day helps you get a better night’s sleep. This includes nutrients like selenium from fish, vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, and lycopene from tomatoes. You should also avoid eating too much and too close to bedtime. If you’re looking for more tips on sleep, read Brainscape’s article: “How to fight fatigue and study NOW”.
The long-term benefits of the right diet for brain health
- Increased neurological function: Research over the years shows a direct relationship between a healthy diet and improved cognitive functions such as memory, juggling different tasks, and concentration.
- Reduced neurodegeneration: As you age, the volume of your brain begins to shrink along with your cognitive abilities. Yikes, that sounds dark. The good news is studies suggest that a healthy diet can protect the brain from this volume loss, which reduces the risks of cognitive decline. In fact, in 2018, Pauline H. Roll and her colleagues studied the risk of dementia in a sample of 4,000 participants and found that those with a better diet quality had a larger total brain volume over time.
- Reduced risk of chronic diseases: Poor diet has been linked to many diseases, such as obesity, high cholesterol, stroke, and heart disease. These systemic diseases cause all kinds of physical and cognitive health problems so if you love yourself, feed yourself properly!
We’ve looked at the importance of proper nutrition on short and long-term health. Now let’s look at how you can supercharge yourself ahead of an exam using the right brain foods.
[Random side-note: Check out our guide to flavor tripping if you are really interested in experimenting with how your brain interprets tastes!]
The best brain foods to eat before a test
We here at Brainscape know that performing really well in your studies is about more than just studying—although, of course, that’s an important part of it. Throughout our many years of cognitive research into optimal study methodology, we’ve come to learn the pivotal role that the right eating habits play in helping students perform at the very frontier of their brainpower.
To help you do the same, we’ve put together this list of 10 dos and don’t for a healthy diet.
Let’s start with 5 study do's!
Carbohydrates are good, and so is fat (the right fat, that is)
Study diet do 1: Bulk up on protein
Lean proteins aren’t just great for packing on some muscle and for recovery. They are the building blocks for muscles, bones, hormones, and (you guessed it) the brain. So, the next time you load up a plate for lunch, make sure you’re including various sources of lean protein like white fish, plain Greek yogurt, beans, peas, lentils, skinned poultry, and eggs.
Study diet do 2: Include healthy fats
Yes, you need fats in your diet. But there’s an important difference between good and bad fats to keep in mind. Saturated fats (the Devil) predominantly come from animals and are found in fast foods and greasy, fried foods. Consumed in large quantities, this kind of food can literally damage your brain (not to mention give you a heart attack).
Then there are good fats (*insert angels singing*): the omega-3 fatty acids. A 2017 study by Daniel Amen and colleagues found that participants with high levels of omega-3 had increased blood flow to the brain and better cognitive abilities. Fatty fish (think salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herring), nuts (particularly walnuts), seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. You can even take a daily cod liver oil pill for that added brain boost.
Study diet do 3: Our hero antioxidants
“Antioxidants” may just sound like a dietary buzzword but they’re actually pretty important for maintaining brain health. Antioxidants, as the name suggests, protect our bodies against oxidative stress from all the crap we are exposed to every day, like pollution, smoke, radiation ... you name it.
You can find antioxidants, our true heroes, in various colorful sources:
- Berries: blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
- Dark, leafy vegetables: broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, and kale, which contain vitamins K, B6, and B12 for improved alertness and memory.
- Other colorful foods: red grapes, avocados, butternut squash, and plums.
Study diet do 4: Consume complex carbohydrates
Your brain’s primary fuel is glucose, which your body derives from carbohydrates and sugar. Complex carbohydrates (wholegrain rice, rolled oats, and whole wheat bread) and low-GI carbohydrates (legumes, fruits, and vegetables) take longer to break down in the body. This provides your brain with a slow and steady drip-feed of glucose.
So, don’t demonize carbohydrates. They are a fundamental source of energy that have been given a bad rap by people who would rather resemble a garden rake than a healthy human being. Just make sure you fuel your body with the right carbohydrates (e.g. wholegrain bread, brown rice, rolled oats, quinoa, barley, and corn).
Study diet do 5: Don’t forget water
Our brains are essentially 70% water so when they are properly hydrated, they work better. You’ll think faster and focus better with improved clarity. That’s in part because water removes toxins and delivers nutrients to the brain.
During periods of cognitive loading—such as exam preparation time—it’s important to remember to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Introducing these healthier brain foods for studying to your diet will give your brain the boost it needs. But it's not just about the propelling yourself forward, it's also about removing your barriers to becoming the best learner you can be.
The worst foods to eat before an exam
Without further ado, let’s dive in with 5 study don'ts.
Study diet don’t 1: Overloading on sugar
I know how much you love your treats and sugary energy drinks but, in addition to increasing your risk of dental cavities, they are playing havoc with your blood sugar levels. And, before you ask, no, fruit juice is not a suitable substitute. Fruit juice is just as packed with sugar as soda and it’s acidic to boot, which can irritate your guts.
If you want the health benefits of grapes, for example, consume them as nature intended … from a wine bottle. Just kidding. As a whole fruit.
Study diet don’t 2: Overloading on refined carbohydrates
We’ve discussed how complex carbohydrates give you a slow and steady source of energy in the form of glucose. Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, like white bread, chips, fries, and pasta, are quickly metabolized by the body and can cause a similar energy slump to sugar. Also, you’re likely to feel hungry again quicker, and few things break one’s concentration quite like fantasies of what’s for dinner.
Study diet don’t 3: Greasy fried foods
Every now and then, raging through an entire bucket of fried chicken on your own is an emotional necessity. But if you’ve got a huge exam the next morning, steeping your brain in saturated fat, salt, and calories is only going to achieve one thing: food coma (and potentially type 2 diabetes).
In a study titled Dietary Pattern, Inflammation and Cognitive Decline, researchers from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information discovered an alarming correlation between diets high in greasy, fried foods, and a decline in learning ability and memory, as well as an increase in inflammation. Another study on 1,018 adults associated each gram of trans fat eaten per day with worse word recall, indicating memory harm.
So yeah, there are some very clear short and long-term impacts of fried foods on brain health. Sorry!
Study diet don’t 4: Getting creative with eating habits
Exam time is not the right time to start a diet—certainly not an unsustainable, fad diet that leaves you hungry. Eat healthily, yes. But eat enough and make sure you are getting a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, unsaturated fats, and nutrients. Exam time is demanding on one’s body and brain health, and you’ve got to provide both with suitable fuel.
Do you know what else you DEFINITELY don’t need during exam time, or worse, during an actual exam? A bout of food poisoning.
Play it safe with the foods you eat; don’t try anything too new or exotic. Avoid that worst-case scenario whereby you cannot physically attend your exam because you’re stricken with a case of Montezuma’s Revenge. You can always try out that new Peruvian restaurant after your exams.
Study diet don’t 5: Boozin’
It’s exam time. You need your brain health to be in tip-top condition. You need it to perform like the rent is a month overdue. Alcohol impairs concentration, memory, and good judgment, which explains why you woke up naked next to your cousin that one time.
Thank goodness it was your second cousin.
Imbibing alcohol while studying, or the night before an exam is about as smart as strapping a boulder to your back and jumping off a cliff. In addition to compromising brain health, it also has a nasty habit of preventing your body from falling into a deep, restorative sleep, which is when your brain does its important housekeeping work.
Even one glass of wine or beer has demonstrated cognitive effects so it’s best to stay clean and sober throughout exam time.
The brain is a picky eater―listen to it
We’ve given you the best and worst foods to eat during the grueling months of studying. How are you going to use this information?
Develop long-term healthy habits. Making healthy eating a habit eliminates the constant struggle of yo-yo dieting and guilt-ridden secret snacking. Yes, treat yourself every now and then but teach your body to crave delicious, wholesome, healthy meals rather than McDonalds. You lead a longer, happier, and healthier life for it!
Eat like your grades depend on it. Oh wait, they do! Put together a balanced, healthy menu plan (including snacks) leading up to and on the day of your exam. Include all of those great brain foods we mentioned so that you have the fuel and mental clarity you need to pass and pass well.
Gain the upper hand with Brainscape
And since performing well on your exam is so important to you (you wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t), you should check out Brainscape’s flashcards app, which can help you study twice as efficiently.
Aren’t flashcards for kids?
Why don’t you ask the law students who have used our platform to pass the bar exam that question?
No—flashcards are for serious learners who are studying knowledge-intensive subjects and need to onboard several books’ worth of information. Our web and mobile learning platform makes it easy for students to create their own flashcards or source flashcards made by our knowledge partners who are experts in their respective fields.
More than just helping you make flashcards, our algorithm is based upon decades of cognitive science research and leverages the power of active recall, spaced repetition, and metacognition to help knowledge stick.
So if you’re serious enough about eating right to improve your brain health, introducing Brainscape into your study regime can give you a razor-sharp edge on the competition!
Here’s a small grocery list from Brainscape to get you started (you’re welcome!).
The best ingredients and grocery essentials for when you’re studying.
Meat, fish, and vegetarian proteins
- Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herring
- Skinned poultry
- Ground turkey
- Extra-firm tofu
Legumes and grains
- Canned beans such as kidney or garbanzo beans
- Canned or dried lentils
- Rolled or steel-cut oats
- Grains such as quinoa, barley, or brown rice
- Whole grain bread
Vegetables and fruits
- Fresh strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries
- Dark greens like broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard and kale
- Red grapes
- Butternut squash
Pantry staples and snacks
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Natural peanut butter
- Chia seeds
- Dark chocolate (you deserve it)
- Dried fruits (with no sugar added!)
Dairy products, non-dairy products, eggs
- Eggs (preferably pasture-raised)
- Cottage cheese (on whole-grain crackers, perhaps with cucumber)
- Yogurt (plain, sugar-free)
- Sauerkraut, kimchi, or kefir
A final word: you are what you eat―so eat brain foods
Doctors, parents, teachers, and lifestyle influencers have been telling us for years—decades even. You are what you eat. And this extends beyond merely being (and feeling healthy). The right brain foods can also leave you cognitively sharper than the rest of your peers, giving you the edge over the competition for the best grades in the class.
For a more comprehensive guide to how to optimize your brain health (and therefore powers of cognition and memory) ahead of exam times, check out Brainscape’s full guide.
We have also put together an A-Z of how to study more efficiently, spending up to HALF the time to get the same amount of exam preparation in. We encourage you to read that too.
Remember, being an A student doesn’t require you to channel all of your time into your studies, especially if it’s at the expense of your health. Smart students maintain balance by eating well, getting rest, and even exercising so that their bodies and brains are primed to learn and primed to perform come exam time!
Amen, D. G., Harris, W. S., Kidd, P. M., Meysami, S., & Raji, C. A. (2017). Quantitative erythrocyte omega-3 EPA plus DHA levels are related to higher regional cerebral blood flow on brain SPECT. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 58(4), 1189-1199. https://doi.org/10.3233/jad-170281
Chacón-Cuberos, R., Zurita-Ortega, F., Martínez-Martínez, A., Olmedo-Moreno, E. M., & Castro-Sánchez, M. (2018). Adherence to the mediterranean diet is related to healthy habits, learning processes, and academic achievement in adolescents: A cross-sectional study. Nutrients, 10(11), 1566. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10111566
Krabbe, K., Nielsen, A. R., Krogh-Madsen, R., Plomgaard, P., Rasmussen, P., Erikstrup, C., ... & Secher, N. H. (2007). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and type 2 diabetes. Diabetologia, 50(2), 431-438. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00125-006-0537-4
Ozawa, M., Shipley, M., Kivimaki, M., Singh-Manoux, A., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Dietary pattern, inflammation and cognitive decline: The Whitehall II prospective cohort study. Clinical Nutrition, 36(2), 506-512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2016.01.013