We all know the feelings.
The post-lunch crash when lessons seem to drag on forever. The dread of losing focus during an exam after an all-night cramming session. Trying to concentrate on a lecture when it feels like you have metal weights attached to your eyelids.
Chloe Lilley, an NHS dietician who specialises in young people and children, said: “During study your brain is processing lots of new information, and sitting down does little for our body to use up excess energy.
“The body craves a burst of energy, often found in the quick release of energy from sweets or foods high in fat.”
That’s why students often turn to energy drinks and chocolate in those moments of need – for that sharp boost to kick them back into gear.
But there are better ways to focus the mind.
Marina Biaudet qualified as a nutritionist before opening Healthy Stuff, a café and shop in Hackney, with her husband in 2011.
She said the key to maintaining concentration is a “stable blood sugar level”.
“All the food we eat is broken down to glucose in our body, and this glucose is used, amongst other things, to fuel our brain. So in order for our
brain to perform optimally, it needs a regular supply of glucose.
“This means eating regular meals throughout the day, including small snacks in between, starting with breakfast.
“The importance of breakfast can’t be understated.”
Dietician Chloe Miles, who is also the spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, agrees: “Ensure that you eat breakfast. Studies have shown that eating breakfast may improve concentration and improve mental ability.
“There may also be a link between eating breakfast and improved academic performance.”
Lilley, who runs a free ‘Healthy Living’ programme for teenagers in Hackney, said that “up to one third of us regularly skip breakfast”.
“Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day as it keeps your body and mind topped up with the energy needed to face the day.
“If you can’t face eating as soon as you get up, take a high-fibre snack to eat on the run, rather than snacking on high-sugar or high-fat foods,” she added.
In praise of carbs
Biaudet recommends a morning meal full of carbohydrates and protein, both of which release energy slowly.
Scrambled eggs on toast, porridge topped with seeds, nuts and banana, or low sugar granola with natural full fat yoghurt are the way to go.
“Eating these foods ensures that you will have energy to study for longer periods at a time, and you will be able to concentrate better,” she said.
Contrary to popular belief, says Lilley, these starchy foods do not cause weight gain.
“However, they can be high in calories if we cook them in oil or cover them in high fat spreads and creamy or cheesy sauces,” she warned.
For lunch and dinner, there are plenty of options for that all-important carbohydrate and protein combo, and we can throw a bit of healthy fat into the mix too.
Biaudet said: “Good sources of all three are tinned sardines or salmon on rye toast, avocado and goat’s cheese on wholemeal toast, free range chicken with roast vegetables and brown rice, or sweet potato and coconut soup.
“Sweet potatoes are a great alternative for potatoes because they are high in B vitamins, which are important for brain function and they help stabilise blood sugar levels.”
‘Go for a matcha’
Eating fats may not sound very appealing, but according to Biaudet, those found in salmon, sardine, avocado, nuts and eggs are “vital for our brains”.
“They are known to improve circulation in the brain, which means improved memory, concentration and mood,” she said.
For those still craving a fizzy drink, Miles had this to say: “Too much sugar, especially in sugary drinks, may contribute to weight gain. Too much caffeine can also cause irritability, anxiety and affect sleep quality, which may impact on your ability to study efficiently.
“Sugary snacks are high in refined sugars and are likely to be a quick fix but then leave you feeling sluggish. They contain ‘empty calories’, and by that I mean they provide energy but very few vitamins and minerals.”
Lilley added: “Cutting out all sugar is virtually impossible. There are natural sugars in lots of foods, including fruit and veg, and you don’t need to avoid these.
“However, it’s a good idea to cut down on foods with lots of added sugar lurking in them, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, and non-diet fizzy and juice drinks.”
If you really need a caffeine fix, go for matcha, a Japanese green tea that is growing in popularity in the UK. Biaudet said: “It contains a compound called L-Theanine, which enhances mood and boosts concentration.
“In afternoons and evenings, however, go for herbals teas such as ginger and lemon, peppermint or chai – good brands are Yogi, Pukka and Clipper. This way you’ll ensure a good night’s sleep that will prepare you for another day of studying.”
Drink plenty of water too.
“Our brain is made up of about 75 per cent water and becoming dehydrated can affect your concentration and ability to remember things.
“Have a jug filled with water by your desk and drink from it throughout the day. If you find the taste of water boring, you could add lemon, cucumber or mint to it,” she added.
Lilley agrees: “We may not be Jessica Ennis-Hill or Mo Farah, but for all of us hydration is just as important for mental as well as physical fitness – and I am not talking about the sort of fluid intake you get in a pub or bar.
“Scientists have consistently found even mild dehydration can lead to reduced mental performance. Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids – the government recommends six to eight glasses every day.
“All non-alcoholic drinks count, but water and lower-fat milk are healthier choices.”
As for healthy snacks between meals, Biaudet recommends oatcakes topped with peanut or almond butter, carrot sticks dipped in hummus, or a handful of almonds mixed with some raisins.
She said: “If you’re on the go, choose snacks such as Bounce balls or Nakd bars, which contain no refined sugar.”
‘Don’t skip meals’
Fruits and vegetables are crucial too. Lilley said: “They are good sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre – essential nutrients that your body needs to work properly. Try to incorporate at least five portions of a variety of fruit and veg into your daily diet.
“Check out your local market at the end of the day for discounted seasonal produce.”
Miles added that the vitamins in fruit and veg can also help to “prevent any coughs and colds which may affect concentration”.
Asked for her top tips for students looking to improve their concentration, she said: “Ensure that you eat breakfast. Aim for between six and eight glasses of fluid a day. Eat little and often – aim for three balanced meals with two snacks in between. Don’t skip meals.
“And include complex carbohydrates in each meal such as wholegrain pasta, wholemeal bread or brown rice.”
So there you have it. There are plenty of wholesome options for students, even those on a budget, who want to focus their minds without necking unhealthy energy drinks.
Who needs wings anyway? Listen to the experts and you’ll be flying.