Good food works smart

Amanda Ursell, CH&CO Independent’s consultant nutritionist, asks if the food served to pupils makes the grade

With the final term of the current school year upon us, many teenagers will have exams looming. Whether mocks or the ‘real’ thing, GCSEs and A-levels bring with them unique demands, which require particular support. 

Schools can help to provide this not just in a day-to-day practical sense with revision and exam techniques, but by working with their caterer from a nutritional perspective to help support the emotional and cognitive demands that exam season brings. And, engage with pupils about the benefits of good nutrition and hydration through conversation and marketing. If they understand the positive impacts, behaviours can change.

Just a one to two per cent loss of body fluid can affect the way the brain thinks and works. If you don’t drink enough fluids, it can affect your energy levels too 

Here we identify five ways in which good food, and therefore good nutrition, works smart.

1. Nutrients like iron can affect IQ and mood and therefore exam results 

How? Iron is crucial for making haemoglobin, the red pigment in blood, which helps to transport oxygen to your brain. 

What is the problem? Just over half of teenage girls in the UK are not eating the ‘lower recommended intake’ of this nutrient1. This can lead to extreme tiredness, mood swings, poor focus and concentration. Research indicates that restoring iron intakes can impact positively on exam performance. 

The solution? Diets should contain iron-rich foods every day, such as lean red meats, oily dark fish, eggs, peas, lentils and baked beans, nuts, dried apricots and fortified breakfast cereals. 

2. Cappuccinos, lattes and energy drinks could disrupt sleep

How? Even hours after consuming, caffeine can adversely affect sleep patterns, leaving youngsters stressed, tired on waking and less able to function. 

What is the problem? The ‘coffee culture’ is embedded in many teenagers lives by the time they reach sixth form age, while younger pupils may be relying on energy drinks to give them a ‘boost’. 

The solution? The last caffeine-containing drink should be around eight hours before bedtime.

3. Slow-release carbs help concentration 

How? Eating carbohydrates like oats in porridge, multigrain and sourdough breads, pasta, basmati rice, pitta and tortilla wraps help to give a slow release of sugar into the blood, which aids concentration, during the hours after eating. 

What is the problem? Lots of teenagers prefer fast-release carbs like croissant and white toast, muffins and sugary cereals. 

The solution? Make the slow-release carbs easily available, tempting and front of mind to help shift choices. 

4. Even mild dehydration affects cognition and mood 

How? Just a one to two per cent loss of body fluid can affect the way the brain thinks and works. If you don’t drink enough fluids, it can affect your energy levels too2. 

What is the problem? While thirst is triggered by the brain in response to low fluid balance in the body, teenagers may override thirst cues if they are busy doing something else or are worried about taking too many loo breaks in class or exams.

The solution? Encourage pupils to carry water in reusable bottles so they can top-up when they need to and to keep an eye on their urine. Pale straw colour indicates hydration, deep yellow suggests they need to up fluids. 

5. Skipping meals affects brainpower and emotional wellbeing 

How? Long periods of time without food affect blood sugar levels and ability to focus. Mealtimes with friends and family also help teenagers to discuss concerns and worries and to relax, switch-off and experience some vital downtime. 

What is the problem? While the French spend two hours and 13 minutes a day eating, we manage one hour and 19 minutes in the UK, on average3. 

The solution? Time around the table can help children to calm down and communicate. As well as directly benefiting mood and stress levels, it provides time for discussion and contemplation on issues such as sustainability to seasonality. Being mindful around food works – on every level.


1. National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) Rolling Programme (2014/ 15 – 2015/16)

2. Roger A. Fielding, PhD, director of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia Laboratory and a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Tufts Nutrition Newsletter, April 2019. Vol, 37, No 2.


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