Crunching for Exams: The Foods to Eat When Studying

by: Justin Chu

About this time of the school year, an intense feeling of stress, anxiety, and panic begins to fill the air in the UNC libraries. The first round of midterms is on its way. Here we see a hundred or so desperate students cramming for their exams with their eyes glued to textbooks and laptops. But next to the stack of lecture slide printouts and notebooks on the table is often a pile of chips, candy, cups of Starbucks, and cans of Red Bull. But did you know that what you eat can have an impact on how well you perform on exams?

PHOTO: “Finals Week Madness,” by Caryn. Flickr Creative Commons.

“I usually eat healthy, but it gets difficult around midterms and finals time,” explains Autymn Harris, a second year English major. “I plan my meals ahead when I can, but sometimes find myself munching on a lot of empty-calorie foods like cookies and fast food because I’m stressed and don’t have a lot of time.”

Even though students are inclined to neglect their diet for the sake of studying, research shows it’s not a good idea — especially when studying. What you eat can play a large role in how well you study and perform on your exams.

According to Elizabeth Somers, R.D., in her book, Food and Mood, the things we eat affect chemicals in the brain that controls all cognitive functions. When you don’t eat the right mix of foods, your brain just doesn’t work as it should. It can impair functions, such as memory, ability to think clearly and quickly, reaction times, concentration, and the ability to learn.

One study conducted at the University of New Mexico found a link between previous and current diet and test scores. By having a healthy diet for longer period time, you will score better on tests.

There is no doubt that what we eat affects how we study and perform on tests. So if you’re looking for a brain boost, here are some foods you should consider:


Whole Grains

Food sources: oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, quinoa

What it does for you: Your brain runs solely on carbs (more specifically, glucose). Now, we’re not saying you should start binging on candies and cupcakes — these kinds of carbs gets absorbed in your body too quickly and can lead to a crash. Instead, you should opt for whole grains, which are carbs that your body uses slowly and for a longer period of time.



Food sources: fruits, vegetables

What it does for you: For many of us, around this time we are more stressed and sleeping less. This causes your immune system to take a hit, making you less likely to be at your best. Antioxidants, such as vitamin E, help protect your body and brain from the typical exam battle wounds.



Food sources: coffee, tea, dark chocolate

What it does for you: Some studies show caffeine can raise your brain function and reaction times. However, too much of this stuff will cancel out the benefits and may make you feel too anxious to think clearly. It may also make you more restless when you sleep and cause your body stress. Moderation is key when it comes to caffeine and studying.



Food sources: eggs, wheat germ, peanuts

What it does for you: Your body makes this nutrient itself, but adding some to your diet may improve your studying. Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that choline has a big impact on your memory. In fact, those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a condition associated with memory loss, have a significant drop in choline production, indicating its importance to memory.



Food sources: tuna, salmon, bass

What it does for you: There are many reasons that people call fish “brain food.” For one, it contains omega-3s, which affects how well nutrients from the foods you eat get into your brain. It ultimately helps to improve brain activity and reduce memory loss as we age.



Food sources: Gum

What it does for you: You may not exactly consider this food. However, chewing gum has been found to improve memory and attention span, according to UK psychologists. Those who chewed gum during tests did much better than non-chewers.



Food sources:  water, juice, tea

What it does for you: It’s important to down some water before you start scribbling on your scantron. According to a study from the University of Bristol, participants that drank water around the time of a test scored 10% better than their thirsty classmates.


The typical foods we eat when we cram for exams may react badly with our bodies. You may not have a lot of time on your hands, but it’s still possible to make better choices. You can make a quick turkey sandwich at home in under five minutes, while making your midnight Wendy’s run would probably take longer and may even harm your studying. If you want the best chances of surviving your exams, eat consciously and aim for a balanced diet.

Good luck on midterms!