Brain-boosting foods for exams

Focus on study can become all-consuming at exam time, causing nutrition to take a back seat. However, it’s important to remember that a healthy diet plays a key role in academic performance. You can’t live on junk food during exam period and expect maximum performance from your brain! 

UQ Master of Dietetics Studies student Lizzie has advice on how to fuel your brain and smash study and exams. 

An overall healthy diet is most important for keeping your body and brain nourished, but research shows that certain foods may be particularly important for promoting mental performance and helping your brain think and function at its best. 

Healthy brain food for study and exams

Slow-release carbohydrates 

  • Fruit and vegetables
    • Fruit and vegetables are high in fibre, iron, and vitamins K, B and C. Fibre slows down digestion and causes energy to be released slowly into your body, helping maintain blood sugar levels throughout the day. Have you ever experienced a sensation of extreme energy after consuming something high in sugar and soon after felt even more exhausted than you were before? This is likely because foods like lollies, chocolate and processed packaged foods are quickly absorbed by your body and leave you feeling tired and unfocused. On the other hand, carbs high in fibre such as fruit and vegetables will have a lasting effect on your energy and blood sugar levels, which is optimal when studying for exams. 
    • Vegetables are also a great source of iron, particularly dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach and broccoli. The role of iron is highly important for your studies because iron carries oxygen through your body to your brain. If you are not getting enough iron your body will experience significant fatigue and sometimes 'brain fog'. Iron has also been shown to boost both mood and memory. 
    • Dark leafy greens are also high in Vitamin K and B which can play an important role in improving cognitive function, memory and alertness. 
    • Vitamin C helps strengthen your immune system  and the last thing you need is to fall sick during exams! Kiwi fruit and oranges are some examples of fruits packed with Vitamin C.
  • Whole grains
    • Whole-grain bread, pasta, porridge and brown rice all contain slow-release carbohydrates. These foods will help keep your blood sugar levels stable, and just like fruit and vegetables, will slow the release of energy to help avoid sudden drops in brain power. This is also because whole grains contain fibre to slow down digestion and absorption.


Meat, fish, eggs, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds, dried beans and lentils, dairy products, and soy products, are all packed with protein. Protein helps your brain send messages to the rest of your body and helps create brain chemicals that improve your mood. Oil-rich fish is both high in protein and Omega-3s which help your brain work more efficiently and improve your mental health. Proteins can also be helpful when pairing them with a high-fibre source of carbohydrates such as whole grains or fruit and vegetable. This is because the protein also slows down the digestion of food which will help maintain your energy levels. 

Good (Monounsaturated) fats 

Fatty foods seem to get such a bad rap these days. But there is such a thing as 'healthy fats'. These are also known as unsaturated fatty acids found in foods like avocados, nuts, pumpkin seeds, olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. These foods contain good fats which can improve your memory and help your brain work more efficiently. Eating mostly healthy fats and limiting food high in saturated fats (e.g. deep fried takeout foods), will help keep you healthy throughout exam period. 

Caffeine (moderate amounts) 

It’s a no-brainer that most people rely on coffee to help improve mood and focus. In small doses, caffeine such as coffee, tea and even dark chocolate, can help keep you alert during exam period. However too much can leave you irritable, sleepless, and anxious. The general rule is to have no more than 300mg per day and to not consume at least six hours before sleep. But these guidelines are different for everyone, so it helps to know your tolerance levels. 


Did you know that your brain is 73% water? Water is vital to keeping your body (and brain) in tip-top shape.

Fact: A study of university students found that those who took a bottle of water to their exams and kept hydrated during the exam performed on average 5% better than those students who didn’t drink water.


I realise preaching to uni students about monitoring alcohol intake is fighting a losing battle, but if I can make just one point: alcohol isn’t conducive to study or exam performance.

Alcohol can impair your memory, and lead to depression, mood swings, and brain fog. Cutting back will not only reduce the risk of hangovers, but it will also keep your brain sharp and help you ace your exams!

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Last updated:
9 January 2023