Exams are a stressful time for any teenager having to juggle school hours, extramural commitments, family activities with additional study periods. Finding time to eat in between all of this presents a further challenge that not many children are able to prioritise. They tend to eat when they are hungry and eat whatever is easily available.  As a parent or carer, you can help by ensuring that the foods available to your children are always healthy and nutritious to maximise their performance when they are under pressure.

Teenage years are an important period of development, with girls reaching the end of their pubertal growth spurt by the age of seventeen and boys by nineteen. They need to eat appropriately to meet their daily nutritional requirements in support of this rapid growth period as well as to fuel their sporting activities. Nutritional needs are elevated even further during exam time as mental concentration levels increase and stress levels reach a peak. Meeting and overcoming the challenge of these high nutritional requirements will help children to excel both mentally and physically.

The stability of a child’s blood glucose level is integral to determining the length of their concentration span or if they can even concentrate at all. The brain burns glucose preferentially as fuel and if blood glucose levels are low then the brain will not be able to function at its optimal level. Low blood glucose levels will also trigger hunger and a child who is hungry in class will not be able to get the most from their lessons. Their diet, therefore, needs to be carefully controlled to ensure that blood glucose levels are consistently stable throughout the day. They need to eat correctly in order to ensure that they are both satisfied as well as satiated.

Children burn glucose throughout their day to day activities by playing sport, thinking and socialising. At the end of a busy day, when they have invariably used up their glucose stores, they are expected to start studying, but if they are ‘running on empty’ it is highly unlikely that they will be able to maintain concentration levels for very long or get the most out of their revision time.

First and foremost it is important to encourage a regular and consistent pattern of food intake throughout the day. Children need three balanced meals per day plus two to three properly timed small snacks in between. Carbohydrates, fat and protein all have a role to play in this eating plan.  The more active children are, the more they need to eat. Snacks then become integral to ensuring stable blood sugar levels and as a result, good energy and concentration levels.

The key is to provide fresh foods and stay away from processed or convenience foods. The latter are high in sugar and/or fat, chemical additives and tend to have a poor nutritional value. The worry with these foods is that they do not provide a sustained blood glucose release, plus foods high in chemical additives can cause fatigue and poor concentration levels in sensitive children. These effects are especially undesirable when they are attempting to study for exams.

Meals should preferably be prepared at home using fresh ingredients. By preparing the food yourself you have control over the quality of the ingredients and preparation methods. Relying on processed or convenience foods makes us naive as to our dietary intake and we can be swayed by appealing slogans like, ‘baked not fried’, ‘lower in fat’, ‘part of your 5 a day’ or ‘no added sugar’.

Each child’s nutritional needs have to be to assessed taking their individual routine and energy requirements into consideration. Eating advice can then be given accordingly to ensure that their food intake is timed appropriately around activities. This will not only ensure an adequate growth pattern but also that their full academic and sporting potential are reached with the overall goal of a positive impact on their exam results.

Some good snack ideas to keep to hand:

  • Plain yoghurt or milk
  • Fresh or dried fruit
  • Fruit smoothies made with milk
  • Biltong
  • Freshly popped popcorn
  • Ryvita or Whole wheat toast with peanut butter, cheese, avocado or fish paste
  • Raw vegetable sticks with cottage cheese or hummus
  • Raw Nuts

Article Credit: Kerryn Gibson (Kerryn is a registered dietitian in private practice in Durban and Ballito working as a paediatric dietitian and a sports dietitian).