Brain Foods for Exams

Updated June 13, 2017

Your pencil is sharp, your desk is clear and your mind is buzzing from that last-minute cram session---but how nourished is your brain? When it comes to taking exams, studying isn't the only way to prepare; nutrition can make or break your test scores. By eating brain-boosting foods before your pencil hits the paper, you can increase your focus, enhance your memory and improve your grades.

Whole Grains

Your brain is an eating machine, devouring 20 per cent of the calories you consume---and its fuel of choice is glucose. In addition to keeping your brain well fed, carbohydrates induce a state of relaxation and calmness, preventing test-taking anxiety from getting in the way of your performance. Whole grains such as oatmeal, dark bread, wheat bran and brown rice digest slowly and provide your brain with a steady stream of glucose. Of course, not all grains are created equal: avoid grain products high in refined sugar and low in fibre, like doughnuts or sugary muffins; this combination spikes your blood sugar and contributes to feelings of confusion and mental fogginess.


Another food delivering much-needed glucose to the brain is fruit. Because it digests quickly, fruit can give your bloodstream a glucose boost and help you stay mentally alert---especially when you eat a piece right before your exam. Fruit also contains vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, which sharpens your concentration by helping your brain deliver nerve impulses. To enhance your test-taking performance, eat a banana, apple, pear or other fruit immediately before exam time. To prevent a blood-sugar roller coaster, avoid canned or dried fruit, which often has added sweeteners.


Fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids---an essential fat that boosts your memory, IQ and concentration. To keep your brain in test-taking shape, load up on oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel and tuna, which have the highest concentrations of omega-3 fats. And just in case your test score comes back lower than you hoped, omega-3 fats can also alleviate depression.


Along with providing plenty of calcium, which bolsters nerve functions in your body, yoghurt contains a brain-friendly amino acid called tyrosine. This amino acid helps you produce dopamine and noradrenalin, which improve your mental focus during test time---and can also increase your ability to recall facts and figures. If you chow down on yoghurt before a test, be sure to pick a naturally-sweetened brand without added sugar to keep your glucose levels on an even keel.


While berries deliver glucose and fibre like other fruits do, they're also goldmines for antioxidants---which improve brain function and memory. Strawberries are particularly potent memory-boosters, thanks to their flavenoid content, and blueberries can fine-tune your motor skills and heighten your ability to retain information. Eat some berries before your exam, or---better yet---combine them with another brain-boosting food like yoghurt.


Don't limit your consumption of brain foods to your pre-exam meal; they can also help you absorb information faster while you study or when you listen to lectures during class. Make whole grains, fruit, fish, yoghurt and berries frequent components of your diet---both for enhanced academic performance and for better health.

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About the Author

Denise Minger, an independent researcher, writer, editor and public speaker, published her first book, "Death by Food Pyramid," in January 2014. Passionate about health, she runs a blog at dedicated to debunking bad nutritional science, and offers health consultations for individuals with special dietary goals.