You’re all set for an all-night cram session. Enough coffee to rouse a hibernating bear. An array of chocolates and candies for your late-night sugar hits. Your phone’s switched to silent, your rainbow of highlighter pens is glistening in the lamplight and you just popped a couple of No-Doz. Everything’s set to go, except for one thing… Dinner.

Sound familiar? Ask any dietitian and they’ll tell you there are several things wrong with that picture. Read on and discover how what you eat and drink can have a big impact on how you perform in that make-or-break exam.

Hit the fridge, before you hit the books

We’re all equipped with our very own super-computers: our brains. These tremendously-complex organs are capable of working non-stop, simultaneously processing thousands of inputs and running literally millions of processes every single day. The one thing our brains need from us is pretty simple: food. Glucose – or the energy carrying carbohydrates found in food – to be exact.
A ‘hangry’ brain has no patience for hypotheses, essays and textbooks. In fact, it doesn’t even care about your stupid test at all. A satisfied brain, however, will help you solve problems and sponge up information as it gleefully laps from golden streams of glucose in your blood. Keep it topped-up, and your satisfied brain will help you reach and exceed your study potential. Easy now: that isn’t a green light to go binge on jelly beans. We’re interested in a balanced diet…

Whole foods for unbroken concentration

A healthy relationship with your ultimate study buddy – your brain – is built on a healthy diet. And a fast-food-affected brain is just about as useless as a hangry one – only lazier. So it’s important to keep up your intake of wholefoods and plenty of fresh water during peak study times.

The nutrients and foods that are important for brain function:

  • Proteins from meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, soy and dairy – for increased brain function
  • Monounsaturated fats from avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil – for improved memory and maximum productivity
  • Omega-3 especially from oily fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, soy, and also meats and flax-seed products – for boosted mood and energy levels
  • Antioxidants from fresh fruit, vegetables, green tea, coffee (!) and juices – for general brain health.

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Spare a thought for nutrition

So, next time you’re up to your eyeballs in essays. or nearing the end-of-year exam rush, stop. Then take another moment to consider how you’ll prepare your pantry for the long days and nights ahead. Get your family, room/housemates on board and you can split the costs and share the benefits. It might seem like a busy time to be thinking about your stomach, but your brain and tutors will thank you.

Ask a dietitian

We asked a Swinburne dietitian their best nutrition tips for busy students

Biggest nutritional mistakes students make while cramming?

  • Unhealthy snacking, particularly on the sweet stuff
    Healthier, lower-sugar snacks – like a handful of nuts, or Greek yoghurt with fresh fruit – will give you the energy (and nutrients) your body needs to study effectively. Plus, you avoid the sugar high/low cycle – so it’s easier to stay awake later, too.
  • Skipping meals
    When studying, the day can just roll by without much structure, meaning it’s easy to skip meals. Including regular meal breaks throughout the day allows you to get the nutrients you need without the excess snacking. Aim for three meals, roughly four-ish hours apart, and make sure each one contains a protein (meat/fish/legumes/nuts) some vegetables/fruit and complex carbohydrates (think: wholemeal or wholegrain bread/rice/grains/pasta).
  • Too much caffeine
    In large quantities, caffeine can affect our ability to sleep, reduce our ability to concentrate effectively and even heighten feelings of anxiety. Not what you need when you’re studying for an exam. General advice: three to four shots (or regular cups) of coffee a day is acceptable, but more may have negative effects; and stay away from the energy drinks!

Five foods to help you get the most out of your study time?

  • Nuts contain protein and fibre, which are important for brain and gut function, and keep you feeling full between meals. A closed handful (30 grams) is a serve. More info here.
  • Greek yoghurt is a delicious, low-sugar source of protein, which also contains probiotics for a healthy gut (linked to better mental health). Top with fresh fruit and a swirl of honey, or eat it plain. Stay away from flavoured yoghurts, as they’re often packed with sugar.
  • Popcorn is high in fibre and low in calories – a mindless option for a thoughtful snack. Choose plain popcorn for the healthiest choice, and avoid caramel- or sugar-coated versions.
  • Bananas are the original brain food. They contain lots of magnesium, potassium and b vitamins, which are all good for your brain and studying. Plus, they come packaged in their own handy wrapper, making them a great portable option.
  • Eggs are high in protein, relatively cheap, and so versatile. Have them for breakfast, a hard-boiled snack, or dinner (just maybe not all three in one day). More info here.

Number one nutritional tip for studying?

Schedule your study day, including time for study, breaks, exercise and food. Perhaps you could plan a ‘treat’ you can look forward to when you’ve reached a milestone, and make sure your schedule allows for healthy meals and snacks throughout the day. Even if you’re on a roll, a healthy food break can do wonders for your brain function.

Did you know?

Swinburne offers on-site health services and fully confidential counselling to students at all campuses. To book a session with our Hawthorn on-campus dietitian, simply call +61 3 9214 8483 or register and make an appointment. You'll need your student ID (or photo ID if you're not a student), Medicare card or OSHC health insurance details and your Centrelink Health Care Card if you have one. If you’re unable to visit the Hawthorn campus, you can ask your GP for a CDMP referral to a dietitian closer to you, or find one yourself online.