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Need To Know: Healthy Dietary Tips For Exam Time

Author: Catherine Pereira - Department of Dietetics, CHS

With exams on the way, students need to stay healthy and focused - and that means watching what and how they eat, says Catherine Pereira from UWC’s Department of Dietetics and Nutrition.

Eat Smarter: Healthy Dietary Tips For Students Writing Exams

With exams on the way, students need to stay healthy and focused - and that means watching what and how they eat. Here’s how you can do that, according to Catherine Pereira from UWC’s Department of Dietetics and Nutrition.

How can students eat better?

Students need to eat smarter, which means getting in enough energy, as well as enough vitamins and minerals, and all other nutrients that the body and brain need to be healthy and function optimally. 

You don’t need to spend a lot of money, but you do need to think about what you’re eating. With the right forethought and preparation, it’s possible to eat healthy foods that contain nutrients that are important for optimal brain function.

How would you recommend students eat at regular intervals?

The most important thing to consider with regard to regular eating is that people need to start planning meals – just spending a few minutes in the morning packing some fruit, a sandwich and snacks can save you money (it’s often cheaper to prepare food at home) and time (you avoid having to stand in a queue), and ensures that your meals are healthier. When we don’t plan meals, we often just eat whatever is quickest, tastiest and cheapest - and that’s not always the healthiest.

Skipping meals can result in hunger and tiredness, both of which can decrease the ability to concentrate properly. So try to eat regularly – 3 main meals (and small snacks in between) ensure that you will be eating enough throughout the day. Some people lose their appetite when they are stressed - but even if you don’t have much of an appetite, try to eat small snacks often to make sure that you are taking in enough energy and nutrients to keep you going. However, eating very big meals can also make you feel tired and cause you to struggle to concentrate.

Some people are ‘stress eaters’ and consume large amounts of high sugar, high fat and high salt foods when stressed (sweets, chocolates, chips, etc.). These foods are often low in vitamins, minerals and protein - and will not help you to concentrate better (or help with your health in the long run).

Best ways to eat smart in the morning?

A good breakfast should provide decent amounts of energy - and preferably fibre and calcium as well. So good options are wholegrain high fibre cereals (like muesli or oats) together with milk or yogurt (for calcium), or porridges that contain fibre and other nutrients added (look at the labels and see which products contain more fibre). Other options include whole-wheat toast with peanut butter or avo or an egg.

And it’s always good to start the day with some water, or rooibos tea (without added sugar).

What are some of the best brain foods around?

Choose healthy fats like avocado (on whole-wheat toast), peanut butter, tinned fish (for example pilchards or sardines, again on toast or with some vegetables or salad) as well as nuts and seeds that can be eaten as snacks or added to meals. These all contain essential fatty acids that help your brain function optimally. Try to eat small amounts of protein at each meal time, whether it is dairy, meat, chicken, fish, eggs or beans, split peas, lentils or soya.

Many people think that supplements, energisers or herbal stimulants can help your brain to function better, especially when you are feeling tired. But these products can be expensive, and many of them do not have proven benefits. It’s much better just to spend your money on healthier foods. If you want to take a supplement, then try a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains most of the vitamins and minerals - at the recommended daily amount.

How do students choose smart vegetables?

Well, all vegetables are smart – veggies are full of vitamins, minerals, fibre, phytochemicals and anti-oxidants that have many health benefits. Unfortunately, most people just do not eat enough vegetables.

When you use vegetables that are in season or you buy in bulk, it doesn’t need to be that expensive - and students can think of creative ways to add more veg to their daily meals. For example:

  • Many vegetables can be eaten raw – carrots, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, spinach, etc. You can pack these like you would a piece of fruit.

  • If having a sandwich, add extra lettuce, tomato and cucumber.

  • Summer is a great time for trying out different varieties of salads.

  • Roasted vegetables are quite quick to make and can be added to a meal, or chopped veg can be added to a stew or pasta.

Staying hydrated - how much water is enough?

We should be drinking about 2 litres of water (about 6-8 cups) per day. This doesn’t have to be just water - any drinks made from tap water will do, including tea and coffee. However the sugar added to tea / coffee must be limited. Try to carry a bottle with you that you can refill with water to make sure you’re drinking enough.

How does exercise fit into the picture?

There are many benefits to an active lifestyle - not only because it helps keep you healthy, but also because exercise provides a good way to take a study break.

Exercise helps to make sure that you don’t become overweight (by using up extra energy and also helping to regulate your appetite) but it also has many other health benefits as well, such as decreasing the risk of developing non-communicable diseases (like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease) as well as helping to relieve stress.

Did you know that the recommendations are that we should be doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every day? So put the books down every once in a while and get moving - you’ll enjoy the benefits.

Catherine recommends checking out the South African Food Guide and South African Guidelines for Healthy Eating. These recommendations, developed by the Department of Health together with nutrition experts, can assist you in eating a healthy balanced diet.

About Catherine Pereira

Catherine Pereira is a lecturer in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition in the University of the Western Cape’s Faculty of Community and Health Sciences. She has been working in the field of community nutrition and public health for thirteen years, as a lecturer at UNISA, on an international research project and as a community dietitian for the Western Cape government (among others). Catherine has programme management and research experience in infant and young child feeding, as well as nutritional management of communicable and non-communicable diseases. A proud alumnus of the African Nutrition Leadership Programme, she firmly believes in making a difference to the lives of the poor in developing countries.​

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