Can food improve your exam performance?

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1. How can eating right improve your grades?

When you're faced with a pile of revision, feeding your body as well as your brain may be the last thing on your mind. But can you give yourself an advantage simply by eating certain foods? And does drinking plenty of water really increase your chances of getting good grades?

Whether you're a student or the parent of a child sitting school exams, are there quick and easy food tips to help maintain those all-important energy levels and improve concentration and memory?

2. What's the best breakfast on exam days?

Research shows that pupils and students who eat breakfast perform better in exams. For the best breakfast, include slow-release carbohydrates, such as whole rolled porridge oats, whole grain bread or low-sugar muesli, as they provide slow-release energy. Add a protein food, such as milk, yoghurt or eggs, to keep you feeling full for longer. On exam day aim to include a portion of a food rich in long-chain Omega-3 fats, such as smoked mackerel, as they are believed to have brain-boosting properties. See Where Next in step seven for a collection of these breakfast recipes.

Exam day special: wholemeal toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon gives you a good portion of Omega-3 fats.

No time for breakfast? At the very least have a big glass of milk and perhaps readymade slow-release breakfast biscuits or a piece of cheese and an apple..

Got a handheld blender? You can make a delicious protein- and fibre-packed drink, such as this blackberry and apple crumble smoothie, in minutes.

Got two minutes to make breakfast? Go for yoghurt, banana and seeds for a good mix of protein and carbs.

Take your time: a breakfast of boiled eggs with rye bread toast is packed with whole grains and protein, so will keep you feeling full.

Time to make muesli the night before? Try this simple, filling recipe packed with nuts and fruit.

3. How can drinking water improve your grades?

One of the best ways to maximise your focus is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration.

Donal Skehan shows you how to make drinking more water less boring.

Take a bottle of water into the exam if you’re allowed to; a study of university students found that those who brought drinks, especially water, with them into the exam performed on average 5% better than those who didn't. Start the day with a big glass of water or fruit tea. The European Food Safety Authority recommends women drink about 1.6 litres of fluid a day and men 2 litres. That's eight to ten 200ml glasses. Water is ideal, but healthy drinks such as milk and small amounts of fruit juice count. Tea and coffee count too, but are high in caffeine. It's best to avoid sweet fizzy and energy drinks, which are high in sugar, as they'll lead to energy peaks and troughs.

4. Which foods will help you focus?

Eating a balanced diet can help you focus and avoid illness. No single food is nutritionally complete, so you need variety. Try not to skip meals or your blood-sugar level will drop. Click on the labels below for more information on a balanced diet.

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Use the above impression of a plate as a guide to the proportions of vegetables, fruit, protein and whole grains that should comprise a healthy, balanced diet. These proportions are based on the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate.

5. What should you eat for a good night's sleep?

Not getting enough sleep may negatively affect your memory and slow your responses. Experts believe memory neurons that are responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term ones work most effectively when we are asleep. There's evidence that students who sleep for seven hours a night do on average 10% better than those who get less sleep. But what should you eat and drink at bedtime to promote sleep?

What should you eat before bedtime?

A heavy meal too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, so try to have your last meal at least three hours before you go to bed. Then have a small snack such as a bowl of high-fibre cereal like porridge just before bedtime. If you need sweetener with cereal, go for dried fruit rather than sugar.

What should you drink at bedtime?

Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee, cola and chocolate, for least four hours before going to bed. Be aware that some people who are very sensitive to caffeine can still feel the effect 12 hours later. A warm glass of milk can help you sleep better.

6. Which snacks should you choose?

When it comes to snacks on revision and exam days, should you eat crisps or popcorn? Cereal bars or nuts and seeds? Click on the labels below to find out.

Energy snack

Cereal bars tend to be packed with sugar, which leads to energy peaks and troughs.


Snack on

Nuts and seeds

They are packed with protein, and will keep you feeling full for longer.

Fruity snack

Fruit juice, in small amounts, will give you a nutrient boost. But it is loaded with sugar, which leads to energy peaks and troughs.


Snack on

High-fibre fruits

Their high levels of fibre mean they release their energy into your bloodstream more slowly. Examples include bananas, apples and pears.

Savoury snack

Crisps will fill you up quickly, but they are relatively low in fibre, so you'll soon feel hungry again.


Snack on


Popcorn is higher in fibre, so it releases its energy slowly, and is lower in calories than crisps, leaving you room for more nutrient-rich foods.

Sweet snack

Milk chocolate is packed with sugar as well as fats, so it can lead to energy peaks and troughs.


Snack on

Dried fruit

Most dried fruit tends to be high in fibre, so releases its energy more slowly than milk chocolate.