The good news is healthy eating habits and good nutrition can have a positive impact on concentration. However, the news that you probably don’t want to hear is that, I’m afraid, there is no one magic food or nutritional supplement guaranteed to help boost your concentration. So, with long study periods and lengthy examinations ahead of you, let’s look at what you can do to ensure you are performing your best mentally.
My first recommendation is aim for a balanced, varied diet that incorporates all the food groups (proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fruit and vegetables); an eating regime that is balanced and varied will minimise your risk of nutritional deficiency and ensure your body and brain get all the nutrients they need. There is a lot of hype surrounding ‘diets’ based around low carbohydrate and zero fat, but a restrictive diet is the last thing you want to embark on when you are studying. It may be the easy option to skip meals because you are so busy with your head in your books or you may even be tempted to go on a restrictive ‘diet’ so you can celebrate the end of exams with a svelter figure, but be warned, your memory, attention and brain function is likely to suffer.
Your ability to concentrate is down to your brain having an adequate supply of energy. This energy comes in the form of glucose and if we don’t have enough glucose in the blood, we can begin to feel weak, tired and fuzzy-minded; glucose is the brain’s primary source of fuel. Too little glucose in the blood can happen as a result of not eating enough carbohydrate-containing food such as bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. Despite what the media and celebrities say, you should avoid eliminating carbohydrates from your diet, they are not the enemy; carbohydrates are an important part of a balanced diet, providing, among other nutrients, B vitamins which are vital for energy.
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and its utilisation by the brain ensures you maintain good concentration and focus. However, this is not a licence to eat lots of sweets and copious amounts of carbohydrates. Of course, over consumption of carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and eating too many sweets can also lead to weight gain as well as tooth decay. In fact, although sweets and chocolate provide a quick release of energy, and you have probably experienced this sort of energy burst after a Snickers bar or pack of Haribos, the effect is short-lived and you can end up feeling relatively lethargic soon after. It is much better to opt for complex carbohydrates (e.g. pasta, porridge, wholemeal bread).
Similar to sugar, caffeine is often used as a stimulant during exam time. I don’t like coffee but I remember in my first year of university (despite studying Nutrition), I’d sit on my bed revising whilst popping those caffeine-containing pills that you can get off the shelf and slugging back energy drinks. I only had to take them for two days to realise I’d be putting the rest in the bin. Although, like sugar, caffeine can energise the fatigued, the benefits are short-lived, and, in some cases, the effect of caffeine can make you feel jittery and uncomfortable, which is the effect it had on me – not a great feeling when you are studying! My advice is not necessarily to cut out the coffee if you are an existing coffee-drinker but instead limit it to one or two cups a day.
Whilst we are on the subject of drinking, I’d like to bring your attention to the fact that dehydration can seriously impair your concentration, so I’d suggest always having a glass or bottle of sugar-free, caffeine-free fluid beside you to sip on regularly.
Did you know a large proportion of our brain is made of fat; it therefore stands to reason that we shouldn’t eliminate all fats from our diet. Including oily fish such as salmon, trout, pilchards, fresh tuna (not tinned) and mackerel will help to boost your omega-3 fat intake which is a healthy fat essential for good mental health.
How many of you skip breakfast? You’re not alone: one-third of us regularly miss this meal because of habit or time pressures, but skipping breakfast can have a negative impact on concentration. Look at it this way: for 6-7 hours (assuming you haven’t stayed all night and morning revising) you have ‘fasted’ whilst you get your beauty sleep. Breakfast is the meal that ‘breaks the fast’ and tops up all those energy stores your body has used up during the night as it repairs and renews itself. Breakfast is an opportune time for a nutrition boost and is likely to give you the physical and mental energy you need for your day of revision/study. Healthy breakfast options include: cereal/porridge with semi-skimmed milk; beans or eggs on granary or wholemeal toast; fruit and low-fat/sugar yoghurt.
Don’t be afraid to snack in between meals to keep your energy levels ticking over until the next planned meal, but be careful about the type and amount of snacks you go for and how often. I tended to have a snack between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner. Healthy snack options include nuts, low fat yoghurts, oatcakes with a low fat topping such as cottage cheese and of course fruit.
Finally, I can’t talk about nutrition without talking about lifestyle; they both complement each other. Here are my top lifestyle tips:
Get enough sleep so you feel refreshed and revitalised the next day – aim for approximately 7 hours a night.
Your free time may be more restricted as you approach the exam period, but do allocate some time to being active. You don’t necessarily have to join a gym or take up a sport, a half hour walk around the local area will do wonders for your energy levels and mental performance.
Try to stay calm and positive while studying: remind yourself why you are doing this – what is the light at the end of the tunnel; draw up a revision plan/schedule so that you are not left having to cram in all your revision towards the end; aim for a work-life balance, don’t abandon your social life, although you may need to curb it somewhat.
Featured Image: Jennifer Chait