‘Food for Thought’ – nutritional advice for those preparing for and taking exams

My girlfriend and I have had a guest staying this week. He is Swiss and is in London for an exam which has something to do with international tax law (it’s all a bit above my head, I’m afraid). Last night the three of us were eating together – our last supper before our guest was due to take his exam this morning. The exam is due to run from 10.00 am to 1.15 pm. I asked my guest what he would be eating for breakfast. His reply? “A couple of bananas”.

My immediate reaction was that a couple of bananas for breakfast is probably not going to provide my friend with optimal fuel for his exam. I don’t have anything against fruit per se, I just think that it’s unlikely to sustain his energy, and mental energy, this morning. This got me thinking that I might write today about a few simple nutritional tips that can help those preparing for and taking exams.

Possibly the most important nutritional concept with regard to optimising brain function is to ensure a decent, steady supply of fuel into the brain. Some carbohydrate can help here, but if at all possible these should release sugar relatively slowly into the bloodstream (low glycaemic index). However, out-and-out carb, evening low-GI carb, in my experience does not sustain energy levels and keep hunger at bay very well. What is generally required here, I’ve found, is a decent dose of protein and some fat. So, what to eat?

My advice to my friend was to have some bircher muesli this morning. I partly recommended in the basis that this is a Swiss concoction, and therefore should be (as is) familiar to my friend. But, the main reason for recommending it is that it is traditionally made from a blend of foods that give sustained fuelling for the body and brain.

The core ingredients I recommend for making bircher muesli are plain, full fat yoghurt, oats, nuts and/or seeds and dried/fresh fruit. For the batch that I made for this morning, I mixed all the ingredients (bar the fruit) with some water. This morning, I stirred in some mixed berries (frozen berries which had been defrosted).

One of the things I like about this food is that a little does seem to go a long way. In other words, even quite small portions do seem to provide good sustenance for extended periods of time. This is important because a lot of people when they get nervous or anxious before an exam don’t feel like eating much. I believe, therefore, that whatever is eaten should really count, if at all possible.

Bircher muesli, in my view, make a good lunch option too. For a long time I believed that in Switzerland, bircher muesli was eaten as a breakfast food. A couple of years ago I discovered that it is quite often eaten as a lunch or supper. This may seem odd from a cultural cuisine perspective, but I personally have not issue with it from a nutritional perspective.

Alternatives for lunch include a hot meal of say, fish, meat, omelette and vegetables, or a salad, ideally with a decent amount of fat and protein thrown in (e.g. meat, mackerel or egg).

Some exams can go on a bit, and there’s the risk that by the end of it brain fuelling can stall. I don’t think it’s a bad idea for snacks (if allowed) to be taken in and eaten during an exam. Munching on half a banana and a handful or two of nuts is generally all it takes to top up fuel supply and keep the brain motoring right through to the end of the exam.

Some of the reasons why these meal tend to work for optimising brain function relates to not what they contain, but what they don’t contain. These meals and food ideas are devoid of generally blood sugar destabilising carbohydrates such a commercial breakfast cereals and bread. And while we’re on the subject of these foods, another problem that can be associated with their eating concerns food sensitivity. It is possible for some foods to leak into the bloodstream in a partially digested form where they can trigger issues which include impaired brain function. Any food, technically speaking, might do this, but my experience in practice is that the number 1 offender in this respect is wheat. This doesn’t affect everyone, but it affects enough people in my experience to make me want to make special mention of it.

More details about the blood sugar imbalance and food sensitivity issues commonly provoked by eating a wheat-based lunch can be found here.

On top of getting the food right, fluid is important too. The important thing here, I think, is to maintain proper hydration. I wrote about this very recently here.

15 Responses to ‘Food for Thought’ – nutritional advice for those preparing for and taking exams

  1. Sam Mackrill 28 May 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    Suggestion: I would substitute Quinoa for the rolled oats, but I understand that might be a bit exotic for you guest.

  2. Dr John Briffa 28 May 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Thanks Sam

    Would the quinoa require cooking? Or just soaking?

  3. Janet Major 28 May 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    Thanks for this advice, yes, I am one who can’t tolerate gluten, wheat or milk products ( due to one Indian Meal eaten 3 years ago- it’s a long story!!!), so can’t do the oats or the yoghurt. I love Bircher Muesli ( even more so when in Switzerland), so how is the nutritional value with alpro natural yoghurt and rice or buckwheat as substitute?

  4. Terry 28 May 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    Dr Briffa,

    I’m a Type 1 diabetic and a celiac also. Can you suggest how I might modify your Bircher muesli to suit both conditions at once?

    Many thanks.

  5. Richard A. 28 May 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Maybe consuming some medium chain fatty acids immediately before a test would help. This would help raise the ketones in the blood and ketones would be an alternative energy source for the brain.

    How about 100 to 200 calories of coconut milk
    Add maybe 1 or 2 teaspoons of whey protein
    Add a few ounces of wild blueberries
    Add artificial sweetener of your own choice
    Blend in a mixer and add enough water to make this drink about 8oz.

    To make this drink even more ketogenic, replace some of the coconut milk with MCT oil.

  6. Susie Cornfield 28 May 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    As far as I’m concerned, the best yoghurt is St Helen’s goat yoghurt. Slightly bitter but not adulterated stuff from poor old cows. Delicious, exam times and beyond. For breakfast as well as lunch. Happy munching. (ps This is not a pr exercise, I’m just an ordinary fan of Briffa and St Helen’s).

  7. audrey wickham 29 May 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    A chum of mine who rented a flat from a male nurse – one who was rather high in his profession was told, by him, to drink a can of Coca Cola just before entering the exam room. My chum is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat rubbish but he did as he was told and said the clarity of his thoughts in the exam room were spectacular.

  8. Dr John Briffa 29 May 2010 at 7:04 pm #


    There’s some research which shows that coeliacs, generally speaking, tolerate oats. If not, perhaps opt for the quinoa Sam (above) recommended. Don’t see any reason why a type 1 diabetic shouldn’t eat this breakast – it’s a lot better, in my opinion, than the nutritionally bereft and blood sugar spiking rubbish so often recommended to diabetics.

  9. tom 1 June 2010 at 12:31 am #

    Hello –
    Just in case you’re reading this stuff, Dr Briffa, and have time to reply.

    I’m a pretty neurotic/ habitually worrying type who wants to lose about a stone in weight and bought your new book the other day, based on the article in The Times. I’ve been very heavily indoctrinated as a kid in a high-carb wholefood eating type diet, but recently have eaten so much chocolate cake and wine I got a bit fat.

    I wanted to ask – I’ve been on this diet now for two days. Am feeling kinda low. Normally I would go out and buy chocolate, or at least eat e.g. lots of bread and hummous. Trying to resist the temptation – but I wanted to ask – does this feeling of lowness/ slight depression/ craving kind of inevitably go away??? and how soon, typically?

    Reason I want to know is I’m facing real challenges/ stress with the freelance work I do and really need to be at fairly peak levels of performance this week. maybe this was the wrong week to start dieting!

    (Oh also I bought chromium pills and glycothingy today and have had a couple).

    Thx 4 any advice y’all can give…

  10. tom 1 June 2010 at 12:42 am #

    hmm –

    funny that my mum (the wholefood influence) is the most massive proponent of home-made muesli like this. she eats a massive breakfast of it every day and often not that much else later.

    question for me is though – why are e.g. oats and dried fruit recommended here when they’re explicitly dissed in the “waist disposal” book? I’m not trying to be clever/ annoying! Just genuinely curious.

    (partly cos I’d rather like to do the extreme “waist disposal” diet for a while to lose weight but couldn’t conceive of doing it exclusively/ unbendingly for the rest of my life…)

  11. Dr John Briffa 1 June 2010 at 9:52 am #

    Hi Tom

    Those cravings tend to pass in a few days. You might like to try the glutamine that I recommend in the book in the meantime. Also, I’ve found that stabilising blood sugar levels (by eating a lower carb diet) generally reduces anxiety (hypoglycaemic is a quite-common cause of anxiety).

    The food.meals recommended in Waist Disposal are designed for fat loss first and foremost. The bircher muesli I recommend here is a good breakfast for energy/brain function. Just not the best if you’re trying to shed fat. Make sense?

  12. tom 1 June 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    Thanks for your reply!

  13. Jackie Wilkinson 2 June 2010 at 10:16 pm #

    One of my top breakfasts for days like this is:
    a small tin of mackerel, about a third of a fresh pear sliced thinly, a few mixed seeds on top, half a slice of wholemeal toast with lots of butter on (or non-wheat equivalent since it’s really just a vehicle for the butter). This keeps me alert for hours.

  14. qualia 5 June 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    if i needed to be in top mental condition (like every day, heh), i’d probably go for fat/protein/low-GI fruit, and not necessarily grains in any form (even tho i’m siwss, and love birchermüesli, i simply can’t tolerate it very well with the usual grains and milk or yogurt (gives me IBS, gas and brain fog). millet and other alternative gluten free stuff is less of a problem, but still not optimal IMO.

    so my best bet would be:
    – 1-2 kiwis
    – 1-2 boiled eggs
    – piece of aged raw milk swiss cheese
    – some whole grain rye/sour dough bread (no gluten problem)
    – a protein shake with ~30g egg protein made with OJ + some high-fat coconut cream (slower digestion + MCT)

    one of my “hobbies” also is tuning alertness and brain performance by using some harmless OTC supplements. some powerful agents for focus are:
    – NADH
    – ALC 500mg (acetyl l-carnitine)
    – Ginseng complex (like 4x mix a 200mg)
    – Phosphatidyl Serine 100mg
    – Concentrated Fish Oil 1-2g
    – Ribose 2-5g
    – Vitamin B12 complex ~5mg
    – Inositol 1-2g (calming)
    – Theanine 100-200mg (calming)
    – SAMe 200-400mg (mood, anti-anxiety)
    – GABA, Mg-Orotate (if sleep is a problem)

  15. Anna Salvesen 8 June 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Coconut milk makes great yogurt (homemade) but it will be less thick than dairy milk yogurt (more like a thick drinkable yogurt). I use a tablespoon or two of plain dairy milk yogurt for the yogurt starter culture (with an added tablespoon of honey or maple syrup for the bacteria to consume, as there is no lactose (milk sugar), but there are non-dairy yogurt cultures available to order online.

    As someone who is borderline diabetic (BG managed without meds) and gluten intolerant, I have pretty much dropped all grains except for incidental amounts of gluten-free grain ingredients here and there. I don’t miss grains a bit for breakfast or any other meal, now that I can see how much better I am off without them.

    My preferred fuel for sustained energy and clearer thinking is a high fat shake with protein that I make quickly and easily from scratch with real food (not with processed protein powders).

    My shake “base” consists of one-to-three raw eggs placed into a tall narrow pitcher, along with 2-4 tablespoons of heavy cream (raw cream if I have it) or coconut milk, a 1/4 cup or more of plain whole milk live culture yogurt or whole raw milk (for the probiotic bacteria), and a handful of crushed ice cubes.

    I often drink this “egg nog” as is with only a tiny amount of sweetening from pure maple syrup or honey (1-2 teaspoons) and a pinch or two of fresh nutmeg.

    For variety I can easily change the shake flavor with other ingredients (watch out for too much high sugar tropical fruit): half a ripe banana (more is too much sugar); a peeled whole orange; fresh seasonal fruits like apricots, cherries, or pears; and handful of frozen berries; almond butter; ground coconut spread or unsweetened coconut flakes; dark cocoa powder or freshly ground raw cocoa nibs two shots of cooled espresso; vanilla or other flavoring extracts; and so forth.

    I blend the shake with a hand-held “stick” style blender (needs to be one with a fairly powerful motor if blending ice or frozen fruit chunks). If I’m away from home and don’t have a blender, I first separate the eggs and use only the yolks (adding a extra yolk or two), stirring up the yolks with a spoon or fork into a smooth and creamy consistency (egg whites really need the blender to break up the thick parts) then I stir in the other ingredients.

    Additional “supplements” I sometimes add are inulin and pectin powders (prebiotic soluble oligosaccharide fiber that supports a healthy colon bacteria population), a drop or two of fat soluble Vitamin K2 (esp if I’m not sure the cream and yogurt are from pastured herds), drops of Vit D3, and a few drops of trace mineral solution. Additionally, if not using coconut milk, I’ll sometimes add MCT oil (medium chain triglycerides), which is made from coconut oil. I really find MCT oil is excellent “brain fuel”. I learned about MCT oil via Dr. Larry McCleary, a neurosurgeon.

Leave a Reply