The Exam Diet: Best brain foods to give your child while they’re studying

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  • What is the exam diet?

    Just as a weight lifter needs a different diet from a long distance runner, teenagers sitting exams need a different diet from other children, according to natural health expert Michael van Straten. The correct exam diet can even, Michael says, make the difference between a pass or a fail, an A or a C grade.

    If your son or daughter is sitting A Level or GCSE exams, or has them coming up, it’s vital you make sure their brains get a constant supply of energy. This is not a day-by-day diet plan but simple tips and things to look out for to help your child achieve the best possible marks come A level results day.

    How does the exam diet work?

    Different foods are broken down in different ways and have different effects on the body. In this exam diet, Michael suggests ways of making sure your child’s brain receives a constant and steady stream of energy, helping them concentrate as well as possible for as long as possible.

    These foods will help your kids avoid slumps that could slow down their revision. How often they eat is just as important as what they eat so Michael advises on the frequency of meals too.

    Who is the exam diet food for?

    Anyone with exams coming up, whether you’re 13 or 73.

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    What are the drawbacks of the exam diet?

    If your child is not used to eating this type of food, they might not welcome the change, especially at such a stressful time. If they’re really resistant, try to incorporate a few small changes such as changing their snacks or making sure they take a daily vitamin pill.

    Read Michael van Straten’s advice and use as much of it as possible in the weeks running up to your children’s exams. There are some recipes at the end for brain-boosting food the whole family will enjoy.

    Sugar: It might be tempting to feed your child sweets, chocolate or energy bars to keep them going but in fact, sugary foods should be kept to an absolute minimum. Anything else with a high-sugar content will give your child a short term boost but this will be followed by a sudden drop in blood sugar. The result is a roller coaster of brain function that can seriously interfere with concentration, memory and performance.

    Read more: 30 packed lunch ideas the whole family will love

    The sugars your child’s brain needs should come mostly from unrefined starches like wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals, oats in porridge or muesli, rice, beans, and pasta. These all provide a slow release of energy to help keep their blood sugar on an even keel.

    Vitamins and minerals: According to Michael Van Straten, the majority of children aged between 10 and 16 are seriously deficient in some of the vital nutrients they need, especially vitamins A, B6, zinc and calcium. But it’s the lack of iron and folic acid in their diets that really affects their mental powers, as these are needed to make sure there is sufficient oxygen in their blood.

    Don’t worry, though. It’s really easy to avoid these problems and guarantee that the brain has everything it needs to cope with the extra demands of exam time. Just include a regular supply of super brain foods.

    Best brain food for studying:

    • Oily fish for essential fatty acids, for example sardines, salmon, tuna, pilchards, herrings or mackerel
    • Prawns, shrimps and shellfish for zinc
    • All red meat and poultry for protein, iron and B vitamins
    • Wholegrain cereals for B vitamins and slow release energy
    • Nuts and seeds (for example, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, brazil nuts, walnuts and peanuts) for essential oils, zinc and selenium
    • Fresh fruit, salads and green vegetables for vitamins C, A and folic acid
    • Liver for vitamin A, iron and B12 (not to be taken by pregnant women)
    • Rosemary, sage, basil and ginger all enhance brain function
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    Credit: Getty

    As well as providing your child with the right food, encourage them to take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement. One study in a Welsh school tested the IQ of a group of children. For eight months they were given a vitamin and mineral pill or a placebo and then their IQs were tested again. The children who took the vitamins improved on average five times more than the children taking the placebo.

    Frequency of exam diet meals

    In order for your child’s brain to do its job efficiently, they must eat at regular intervals, at least every three hours. Don’t let them go too long between meals and provide them with healthy, nutritious snacks like fruit, nuts or wholegrain cereals.

    Think about what kind of meals you’re providing at what time of the day.

    Meals rich in starchy foods like pasta, rice, bread, cakes and biscuits trigger the release of the hormone serotonin from the brain, which is relaxing and prepares you for sleep. These are an ideal evening meal but not great at lunchtime. High protein foods like meat, fish, poultry, cheese and eggs stimulate the brain so are better for use at lunchtime.

    If your kids are sitting exams or are just getting ready for them, this is an example of how they should be eating.


    1 large glass of fresh fruit juice, large chunk of cheese, a tomato and 1 slice of wholemeal toast OR 1 egg, lean grilled bacon and a low fat grilled sausage

    Mid morning snack:

    Dried apricots, raisins, dates and plain fresh nuts. 1 banana.


    Meat, chicken or fish with vegetables or a large mixed salad which includes basil and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds. A mug of ginger tea (make this yourself by grating half an inch of ginger root into a mug of boiling water and adding 1tsp honey).

    Mid afternoon snack:

    Cheese, hard boiled egg or hummus with raw carrot, red pepper and celery, plus any fresh fruit


    Thick root vegetable casserole or pasta with tuna fish and basil (for recipes for both of these, read on). Fruit crumble for dessert (recipe also below).

    Also during the day, your child can eat a handful of semi-dried dates and a banana. Encourage them to drink at least three to four pints of fluid as well, mostly water but including weak tea, herb teas, natural fruit and vegetable juices and not more than two cups of coffee.

    Bean and root vegetable casserole

    1 large leek 1 large onion 3 cloves garlic 3 tbsp rapeseed oil 1 swede 1 large parsnip 2 carrots 1 medium sweet potato About 700ml (1 1/4 pt) vegetable stock 400g tin chopped tomatoes 3 tbsp tomato puree 400g can broad beans Sprig of rosemary and 6 sage leaves.

    1. Slice the leek, chop the onion and garlic. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and sweat all three, stirring continuously, for 3 mins.
    2. Peel the parsnips, carrots and sweet potato and cut into cubes. Add
      to the pan and stir to coat thoroughly.
    3. Add the stock, tomatoes and tomato puree and bring to the boil. Add
      herbs, cover and simmer for 45 mins.
    4. Drain the broad beans, rinse thoroughly and add to the pan Continue
      to simmer until beans and vegetable are all tender (about 10-15 mins)
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    Credit: Getty

    Green pasta with tuna

    450g (1lb) green tagliatelle 6 spring onions, coarsely chopped including green parts 1tbsp olive oil 400g (14 oz) tinned tuna in oil Handful shredded basil leaves Black pepper

    1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Meanwhile, put the oil in a frying pan and very gently fry the spring onions till soft.
    2. Add the drained tuna and stir well until warmed through. Drain the pasta, return to the saucepan, and stir in the tuna and spring onion mixture.
    3. Serve sprinkled with the torn basil leaves and black pepper.

    Apricot and almond crumble:

    500g (1lb) apricots 2tsp sugar 2tbsp water 150g (6oz) porridge oats 50g (2oz) ground almond 1tbsp runny honey 1tbsp flaked almonds 25g (1oz) butter, cut into tiny pieces

    1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF /gas 6. Lightly grease a pie dish.
    2. Put in the fruit – washed, and peeled or cut up if necessary. Add the sugar and the water.
    3. Mix the oats and ground almonds together and spread over the top of the fruit – there should be enough to make an inch thick coating.
    4. Drizzle the honey over the top. Scatter over the flaked almonds. Dot with the butter and put in the oven for 20 mins.

    What to eat before an exam:

    Even if your child normally skips breakfast or avoids eating when they’re feeling nervous, make sure they still take the time to eat something. Their brain will need the energy from food to work efficiently, and eating before an exam will ensure your child’s mental focus is kept on the exam and not on their hunger.

    Healthy food choices on exam day include protein-rich foods such as eggs, nuts, cottage cheese and yoghurt. A good breakfast combination might include whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, porridge, muesli or eggs and toast with jam.

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