Pro-Tips: Healthy Eating During Exams


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Exam period is approaching: late-night library sessions, inadequate sleep, piles of highlighted study notes and textbooks – with so much going on, it can be difficult to prioritize healthy habits during this time. But keeping up with a healthy lifestyle through stressful periods can help you achieve the best results possible. For this week’s Pro-Tip, we’ve asked Jacky Samaniego, Dining Service’s Registered Dietitian, to lay out 5 tips to help you achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle during exam time:

Don’t Skip Meals

Sometimes you might feel tempted to skip a meal in order to finish studying one more chapter, but ignoring your hunger cues and skipping a meal is only going to set you back.

Your brain needs glucose, but I’m not talking about the quick sugar from candy that can peak your glucose levels and then suddenly drop, I’m talking about a continuous delivery of glucose that you can get from complex carbohydrates. A continuous supply of glucose will help you focus without feeling hungry often. Make sure to include the following in your meals: ½ plate full of vegetables, ¼ plate carbohydrates, and ¼ plate protein. Some examples of foods you can include in your meals to keep you full and focused include:

  • Carbohydrates: whole grains such as whole-grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur. You can also include starchy vegetables as part of your carbohydrate portion, such as sweet potatoes, squash, and pumpkin.
  • Proteins: lean meats (meats with low-fat content) such as chicken, turkey, fish, tuna, and lean red meat.
  • Vegetables: all types of vegetables (choose more of the non-starchy vegetables)

Snacks are Important

When we feel stressed and/or anxious, we might feel that we need something sweet or salty such as chips, candy, or cookies. Eating high amounts of sugar and salt will not only provide empty calories (no nutritious calories) but will also have you feeling hungry soon afterwards. Plan study breaks to eat a snack in order to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable.

Carbohydrates are your brain’s preferred energy source, but the quality of the carbohydrate is important. For lasting energy, eat snacks that include fibre such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Then, combine this with a protein-rich food item such as nut/seed butter, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, or bean dip. This will ensure that you stay full for longer and will prevent you from experiencing “the crash”.

When you are busy, it’s easy to go for food items that you keep in your pantry, so stock up on foods that are nutritious and convenient! These include fresh fruit, raw veggies, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt, low sugar high fibre breakfast cereals, popcorn (not buttered), and canned tuna. Add a snack whenever your meals are 4 or more hours apart.

Drink Less Caffeine

Searching for caffeine to get through the pile of study notes? While caffeine does provide you with an energy boost for a short time, afterwards it can leave you feeling jittery, nervous, and/or anxious. Moreover, depending on how much caffeine your body can tolerate, you could experience an upset stomach and insomnia.

If you choose to consume caffeine, limit your intake during the day. Choose water, sparkling water, herbal teas, or decaffeinated coffee instead. You can start decreasing your caffeine intake by having a half-decaf coffee and slowly decrease the caffeine from there!

Remember that you want to rest adequately before your exam, and high intakes of caffeine can be the reason why you can’t sleep the night before the exam.

Hydrate your Brain

We should be drinking at least 1.5L of water daily, but many times we forget to drink water especially when we are busy. Dehydration can sneak up on us and we might feel light-headed or even experience headaches due to dehydration. Carrying a reusable water bottle with you can help as a reminder to drink water, as you will most likely feel the need to fill the water bottle throughout the day. While plain water is typically the best way to hydrate, consider the following options to boost your fluid intake:

  • Infused Water: add fresh cut fruit, vegetables, or herbs. For example cucumber, oranges, lemon, mint leaves.
  • Tea: try pure, unsweetened brewed iced tea flavoured with citrus fruit (lemon, oranges, grapefruit)
  • Fruits and Veggies: some fruits and veggies are packed with water and they can help you increase our fluid intake. These include melons, cucumbers, citrus fruits, celery.

Sleep Well

It’s hard to prioritize sleep when we are busy, but not sleeping enough can make you irritable because you’re not feeling your best. Sleep quality and quantity are important during exam week and during the entire academic year. Having less than 7-9 hours of sleep each night, can leave you less alert and at risk for a weakened immune system – getting sick is the last thing you want when you need to study! Do your best to create a schedule where you have a regular bed and wake time.

If a full night of sleep is really something you can’t do, try to avoid staying up late multiple times in a row during the week. Remember that your health, your mood and your grades are important, and a good night’s sleep can make a great difference.

Try creating a routine where you shut off all your devices and dim the lights before going to bed (or even start reading a book before bed), this can help your body get ready to sleep.

If you want more information around eating health as a student, Jacky offers free nutrition consultations to all Carleton students. To learn more, visit the Dining Services website.

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