Top snacks to boost your brain ahead of the Leaving Certificate
To maintain concentration and energy levels, students need to fuel their bodies properly, writes nutritionist Gaye Godkin
Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30
Exam times bring added stress into the house and it almost feels like we are all sitting them. Some students can lose perspective and become overwhelmed with exam fever. Self-care is not a behaviour that is prioritised by many busy students. Very often students neglect the fundamentals of good health such as eating nourishing foods which will alleviate the effects of exam stress and anxiety on the body. Looking after the body's nutritional requirements is a must for those who want to succeed, stay calm, keep their energy levels constant and remain alert.
Cramming and staying up late interferes with the body's normal re-fuelling schedule which can lead to poor food choices, which in turn impacts on energy levels and their ability to focus and concentrate.
When students are studying, they need to eat. It is paramount that they have enough fuel in the body and do not feel hungry. This is not a time for crash dieting or calorie counting. Girls tend to be more aware of the calorific value of foods and may not be getting enough foods from all food groups. Anaemia and lack of B12 are prevalent in this age group. Cutting out certain foods from the diet can cause anaemia which leaves the body in a state of exhaustion. Mood in particular is affected and a general sense of malaise and fatigue can be present. This is not a great state to be in between now and June.
Glucose is the fuel of the body. During exam times a steady supply of glucose is vital to maximise concentration, focus and memory. The brain is a hub and the fountain of all stored information. It relies entirely on glucose to fuel it. It has a greater requirement for it than any other organ. To maximise brain function, brain cells need a constant drip supply as it has no glucose storage capacity, unlike all of the other organs of the body which convert excess glucose to fat. Balancing glucose supply to the brain is the secret to staying alert.
The most efficient way for the body to make glucose is from carbohydrates. However, choosing the right type of carbohydrate is the secret. Eating refined processed carbohydrates such as white bread, soft drinks, biscuits, fruit juices or energy drinks, releases glucose immediately into the blood stream. But this glucose rush is short-lived and blood sugar levels go down quickly leading to blood sugar imbalances and cravings. To get a sustained release of glucose to the brain, you need to eat carbohydrates in their natural state. This provides a slower more effective release of glucose and keeps the body fuller for longer. Good sources include oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice, quinoa, fruit, and starchy vegetables such as carrots, turnips, parsnips, potato, sweet potato, butternut squash and pulses. Eating protein, fibre and healthy fats with carbohydrate foods will slow down the rate of absorption of glucose and you will feel fuller for longer.
Fats play an important role in the body. The brain is a fatty organ. Over 30pc of this fatty structure comes from omega 3. Omega 3 is an essential fat because the body cannot make it, therefore it must be taken in through the diet. This nutrient is essential for mood, hormones, immunity, learning and memory. Therefore it is important to consume oily fish three times per week. Oily fish is the most bio-available source of omega 3 to the body. Vegetable sources come in the ALA format and are poorly converted to EPA/DHA, the active components of omega 3. If oily fish doesn't appeal to you then take a good quality fish oil supplement with a minimum of 500mg of EPA/DHA daily.
Burnout is a common occurrence with students. This is primarily because the adrenal glands are on high alert during a prolonged stressful period. I don't tend to use or recommend multi-vitamins and multi-minerals. There is not sufficient evidence to suggest that they confer major health benefits when taken in a multi form or that they dampen down the physiological stress response. However, there are certain vitamins and minerals that when used singularly offer support to the adrenal glands and the immune system. B complex is a co-factor for many biochemical activities in the body, in particular energy production. It is involved in carbohydrate and protein metabolism and enhances the immune system. Omega 3 for brain health and immunity. Vitamin C and magnesium will offer support to the adrenal function. Vitamin C also enhances immune activity.
* 1 B complex in the morning after breakfast * 500mg of omega 3 in the EPA/DHA format with main meal * 500mg of vitamin C at morning and at bedtime *400mg magnesium citrate at bed
Sources of protein
Nuts and seeds
Peas, beans, lentils
Tofu, tempeh, soya
Primary sources of omega 3
Vegetable sources of omega 3
Chia seeds, flaxseed
Food is the real fuel for the body. However, prioritising certain positive lifestyle behaviours is key to maintaining a healthy equilibrium while studying. Exercise, for example, is a must to burn adrenalin, to increase energy, concentration and focus. Twenty minutes in the morning before breakfast is a good time to engage in some physical activity. Aim to get two to three 20-minute exercise breaks each day. This will re-focus the mind and burn off excess stress hormones. Getting regular breaks and going outdoors is also essential as this is the best way to get vital vitamin D.
10 reasons to exercise
1. De-stressor - improves mood
2. Burns excess stress hormone, adrenaline
3. Increases oxygen supply to the brain
4. Radiant skin and complexion
5. Creates more energy within the body
6. Regulates hormones
7. Best antidote to anxiety and depression
8. Boosts immune system
9. Increases metabolism
10. Strong heart and lungs
Burning the midnight oil requires concentration which requires energy and energy needs fuel. The secret is not to allow the student to get hungry as this interferes with blood-sugar levels. Best practice is one snack mid-morning and one in the afternoon and one in the evening while studying. However, that is assuming they are having three meals per day and getting to bed at a reasonable time. Students need to snack, however, excess snacking on simple carbohydrates such as sugar-laden soft drinks, energy drinks or bars should be avoided. This time of year, there is a wide variety of fruits in the shops so making up a smoothie with some natural yogurt is a perfect snack. Other healthy snacking ideas to sustain them are fruit, nuts and seeds, oatcakes, milk, hummus, pesto or cheese on wholemeal crackers, rice cakes with nut butter and a banana, full-fat yogurt with fruit and dark chocolate. Daughter number two here is a dab hand in the kitchen. She had a delicious snack idea which she made doing her Junior Cert last year. Her recipe is:
Healthy chocolate fruit and nut kebab recipe:
2-3 slices of pineapple
70g of dark chocolate (70pc cocoa)
20g of chopped hazelnuts
10g of desiccated coconut (optional)
4 wooden skewers
Grease proof paper
1. Wash and dry strawberries/raspberries 2. Chop pineapple into cubes and slice kiwi 3. Arrange fruit on the skewer 4. Melt dark chocolate 5. Pour melted chocolate over skewers 6. Shake coconut and chopped hazelnuts over melted chocolate immediately 7. Place in an airtight container to store in the fridge.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Never leave the house without refuelling. This will lead to energy dips and cravings for the rest of the day. It's a good idea to start the day with a glass of hot water with lemon or lime - the astringent from lemon or lime wake up the colon and liver and support detoxification.
1-2 eggs and tomatoes with 1-2 slices of brown bread
4-5 oat cakes with almond nut butter and banana
1-2 eggs with smoked salmon and tomato
30g of porridge with nuts and seeds
30g of muesli with extra nuts and seeds
30g of granola with extra nuts and seeds
Half a large tub of natural yogurt with milled seeds and berries
If you can't face breakfast… apple or banana
Eating salads and raw vegetables at lunch will support the digestive function and provide protein and fibre. Meat should not be consumed twice daily so if eating meat in the evening, include other protein-rich foods at lunch. Foods that are easy to digest release energy effortlessly.
Green salad with tuna
Quinoa and roast vegetable salad
Walnut, feta cheese and beetroot salad
Wholemeal sandwich with tinned fish and greens
Omelette with salad and brown bread
Dinner time is a good opportunity to relax and unwind. Always eat at a table and without the phone or the laptop. Aim to keep the atmosphere as pleasant as possible and avoid stress-inducing topics of conversation. Chew well and slow down to aid digestion. Remember the stomach does not have teeth. Fifty per cent of the plate should be from a vegetable source, 25pc from carbohydrate and 25pc protein.
Stir-fry vegetables with beef or chicken and rice
Thai green curry with chicken or fish
Grilled or baked fish with potato
Roast vegetables with fish or Meat Chickpea and sweet potato curry with rice and salad
Top 10 eating tips
1. Always eat breakfast
2. Snack every 3-4 hours
3. Slowly drink 2 litres of water each day
4. Go to bed earlier and get up early in the morning
5. A banana before bed will aid sleep
6. Choose healthy snacks
7. Include protein and fibre with each meal
8. Consume brightly coloured vegetables daily
9. Increase your oily fish consumption
10. Choose healthy fats - they are essential
There is the temptation to stay up very late at night drinking caffeinated and energy drinks while cramming. Caffeine leaves the body dehydrated. Hydration must be prioritised. Remember 1pc dehydration slows the brain function down by 10pc. Always re-hydrate on water. Excess caffeine stimulates the production of adrenaline, the stress hormones. High levels of adrenaline wreak havoc on the body. We have a tightly controlled body clock called the circadian rhythm. When we go to sleep, our bodies have many functions to carry out. Sufficient sleep is one of the most restorative things we can give ourselves. If time is an issue, which it usually is with students, it is better to get up at 6am and be in bed by 12. The brain will be rested and ready to retain lots more information.
Health & Living