In previous articles, we’ve already talked about how avoiding hunger while studying is a great way to minimise procrastination by keeping your energy levels up – but what kinds of things should you be eating and why?
While this is as much a matter of personal preference as anything else, there’s definitely some choices that are better than others when it comes to study time nutrition, and these are our thoughts.
Sugary snacks aren’t a great idea; aim for complex carbs instead
Yes, we’re sorry. But to be honest, while cracking open a pack of oreos might motivate you in the short term, eating high Glycaemic Index (GI) foods like sugary snacks is more likely to spike your energy, and leave you feeling deprived a short while afterwards.
GI is a measure of how quickly your blood sugar is raised by consuming a food, and simple carbohydrates like sugar, and those found in processed grains like white flour, typically have a very high GI. This means they quickly raise your blood sugar, energising you, but leaving you hungry and de-energised again as your blood sugar drops more rapidly. While a quick spike in blood sugar might be useful right before, say, an athletic event, for prolonged periods of concentration, lower GI carbohydrates are better.
Consider instead consuming your carbohydrates in the form of crunchy vegetables like carrots and celery (with hummus), brown bread, brown rice, or any other whole grain food. You’ll find that you’ll feel energised for longer and this will improve your concentration; starting the day with whole-wheat bread, cereals, oats, and other complex carbohydrates will also help this.
Hydration is very important
An often neglected part of nutrition, your water intake is still very important for dietary function and overall well-being and concentration.
Many people wait until they are thirsty to drink; not only is thirst a poor indicator of dehydration but it’s also one of the later symptoms. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated and suffering the effects of dehydration in terms of both mental and physical performance, whether you’re aware of it or not.
The best way to combat this? Always keep a water bottle handy and sip continuously while studying. Aim to consume at least 8 250mL glasses of water per day, and increase consumption if you are being physically active, if the temperature is high, or if humidity is high.
Protein and fats are more satiating than carbohydrates, preventing hunger and leaving you full
Protein is already typically regarded to be a very important nutrient, while fats less so. But it’s very important to realise that having protein and fat-based snacks will likely keep you more satiated (full) than carbohydrate equivalents.
Perhaps the biggest mistake in the history of nutritional advice has been to unfairly paint fat as a ‘bad’ nutrient – in fact, at least 20% of your caloric intake should come from healthy fats each day. Great snacks rich in healthy fat include avocado, lean fish (like tuna), beans, and legumes. Fat keeps you satiated better than carbohydrates; and avocados might just be our favourite study snack food ever!
Protein is also important in keeping you satiated, as well as being used in cellular regeneration, muscle repair, and digestion. Around 35% of your daily calorific intake ought to be protein (even higher if you are undertaking any strenuous exercise). Great snacks that are sources of protein include tuna, grilled chicken, legumes, eggs, and plain greek yogurt (be careful though, as sweetened yogurt can be extremely high in sugar).
Start the day with something relatively substantial for breakfast, especially if you plan to study later on
Although we’ve just been talking about snack foods so far, your overall nutrition through the day is what’s really critical to maintaining high energy levels and stable blood sugar in order to maximise your concentration.
The best way to do this is to ensure you don’t skip breakfast – even when you’re in a hurry. Breakfast – so named because you’re literally breaking the 8-hour-ish fast you’ve had since you went to bed – is unambiguously the most important meal for the day, since you really need to kick your metabolism into gear to have enough energy throughout the day.
Aim for a protein and complex-carb rich breakfast; whole-grain cereals, eggs, fruit, milk, oats, and plain greek yogurt are all great choices for energy through the whole day. Avoid sugary cereals, white bread, or worst of all, no breakfast at all; if you’re in a rush, consider at least downing a glass of milk and eating an apple; protein drinks are another option for those poor on time. This is especially important the morning of an exam: no matter how nervous or nauseous you feel, a light meal (at least) is necessary if you want enough energy to effectively concentrate.
Be mindful of your overall calorific intake; exam periods can be less active – adjust accordingly.
Dependent on body mass and minor variations in basal metabolic rate (BMR), the typical man requires 2000 calories (8000 kJ) per day to simply allow life sustaining processes to occur. A typical woman requires slightly fewer calories, at around 1800 per day (7200 kJ).
This figure increases if you’re undertaking any exercise, and also depends on environmental factors (you actually burn slightly more energy when it’s colder). It’s important to realise that through exam periods you might actually be less active, and need to think carefully about adjusting your usual intake accordingly.