30 Best Brain Foods for Studying and Exams
Exams are upon us, and it’s more important now than ever to eat brain foods that will keep you focused for long study sessions. However, it’s also good to have a well-balanced diet year-round.
Your brain is the control center of your entire body, so keeping it healthy should be prioritized. You can avoid cognitive decline and memory loss by eating Brain Foods for Studying (and avoiding) certain foods. Luckily, most of these foods are easy to find at local grocery stores or farmers’ markets—and some may even be hiding in your pantry right now!
Why Your Study Snack Matters
Your brain is a complex organ, and it needs fuel to perform at its best. For instance, the natural glucose in your bloodstream that feeds your mind requires certain nutrients and energy boosters to keep that glucose flowing. This is where “brain foods” come in—specifically foods full of healthy fats and quality carbohydrates.
Some studies show that consuming these foods can improve attention span, memory, cognitive function, and speed of visual processing of information. This means they could be especially helpful while studying for an exam or preparing a presentation.
Brain-boosting diets usually contain a high amount of antioxidants and low glycemic index foods. Antioxidants such as vitamin C help protect neurons from oxidative stress, which can cause damage throughout the body. Foods with low glycemic indexes provide sustained energy because they slowly release sugar into the bloodstream.
The 25 brain foods listed below will keep you focused, help you remember facts more easily, and maybe even boost your concentration powers. They’re also great for boosting overall health.
List of 30 Best Brain Foods for Studying and Concentration
Eggs are a good source of protein, amino acids, and the important nutrient choline. In one study, researchers found that people who ate eggs for breakfast had better focus throughout the morning than those who ate bagels. Scientists believe that choline plays an important role in brain development, so it makes sense that this nutrient would help you memorize material for an exam. You can eat eggs any day, but they make a particularly filling breakfast or lunch choice.
When it comes to brain health, avocados are one of the best choices you can make. They’re rich in monounsaturated fat, as close to a “brain food” as any. Avocados also contain potassium and B vitamins.
Avocados have been shown to improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of strokes. One study indicates that eating avocados regularly can even lower cholesterol levels.
These delicious fruits are also a great source of fiber, which helps you feel fuller longer and prevent overeating when you might be tempted to grab food out of stress or boredom rather than hunger (like while studying).
Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely beneficial for overall brain health. They’ve been shown to reduce inflammation, slow cognitive decline as we age, and lower the risk of chronic diseases. Lamb is an excellent source of omega-3s. It also contains a good amount of protein and B vitamins, which support the brain in converting food into energy.
A classic and widely available superfood, blueberries are high in antioxidants, low in calories, and full of fiber. They’re also good for your brain, heart, blood pressure, and eyes.
Studies have found they improve memory by increasing activity in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stores information) when consumed regularly. You can eat them raw or freeze-dried; you can even mix them into smoothies or a bowl of oatmeal. Bonus: A 2019 study found that blueberry eaters had better short-term memory recall than non-blueberry eaters.
One of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, trout, and albacore tuna. These omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function because they increase the fluidity in the membranes in your brain cells. This fluidity allows messages to pass between cells more quickly and efficiently than if they were stiff or rigid membranes.
Fish intake also affects brain structure and improves cognitive ability in healthy people
Turmeric is a popular cooking spice. This yellow-orange root has a bitter taste and contains curcumin, which gives turmeric its distinct color and is known for its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Aside from those, research suggests that turmeric may also help improve memory and brain function. It has been widely studied in the context of Alzheimer’s disease due to its ability to boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps regulate mood and keep your brain cells healthy.
- Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are full of brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K and folate. These leafy wonders also contain lutein and zeaxanthin—antioxidants that have been shown to improve memory test results in older people. Consuming more leafy greens can boost your brain while studying for exams or working on big projects.
- The dark green pigment in leafy greens is associated with reduced brain inflammation—which may help explain why eating plenty of vegetables has been linked to slower cognitive decline as we age. Leafy greens can also help relieve stress: One study found that rats who were fed a diet containing blueberry extract and spinach extract for six weeks before being exposed to stressors were better able to cope than rats fed a control diet.
The sky is the limit when it comes to nut and seed selection for exam study snacks. Some of the most beneficial options include almonds, pistachios, peanuts, walnuts, cashews, and pumpkin seeds. Most varieties are high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats. They also contain many vitamins and minerals, including manganese, magnesium, and Vitamin E.
For example, nuts like almonds contain health-promoting unsaturated fatty acids and a high amount of antioxidants that help protect your brain against stress-related changes in signal transmission. For students revising for exams or attending lectures at university or college, eating a handful of almonds can instantly boost memory and cognitive function. This can make it easier to learn new information quickly during periods of intense concentration.
Cocoa and Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants, which can help with heart health, brain function, weight loss, blood flow, stress reduction, and more. Minimally processed dark chocolate (which is usually the kind with a high cocoa content) is key; if you find yourself eating a lot of milk or white chocolate (or candy bars), you’re not getting much benefit.
Coffee (or Tea)
Coffee and tea are staples for college students and young professionals alike. But just as important as the caffeine boost is what’s in that coffee or tea that supports your brain. Coffee beans, green tea leaves, and black tea leaves are all good sources of antioxidants, which help protect against aging (and some diseases). Tea also contains the amino acid L-Theanine, which helps with memory formation and attention.
While a cup of coffee or two will give you an immediate pick-me-up, we’d discourage you from drinking more than four cups in a day (unless you want to be stuck at 2 am typing up an unfinished paper…in which case, drink on!). Remember that while caffeine can improve cognition and alertness, too much can negatively affect both.
And if you’re not into coffee or tea but still need the occasional caffeinated beverage? Blackberries contain the highest amount of caffeine per serving compared to other fruits—so go ahead and enjoy those muffins!
Brocolli is another superfood that’s rich in vitamins C and K and carotenoids. And it has the impressive ability to boost brainpower. If you’re looking for a meal that can double as a study snack, try stir-frying some broccoli with garlic and pairing it with brown rice or quinoa to make your own healthy and delicious version of Chinese takeout.
This will ensure you consume enough protein on top of this vegetable’s antioxidant content. Broccoli also contains antioxidants that help protect the brain from oxidative stress, which is known to trigger anxiety and depression in students suffering from chronic stress.
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Beets, long the icon of European royalty and fancy restaurants, are more attainable than you think. They’ve been known to improve your study game because they’re rich in iron, which helps keep you alert when you’re trying to cram for that big exam or finish that essay at 2 AM.
They’re also rich in nitrates and pigments, which help blood flow from the heart to the brain. This means more energy overall (and hopefully enough energy to eat all those other foods on this list).
You might think that carbohydrates are the last thing you need to boost your brain and memory power. But these are not the type of carbs that spike your blood sugar. Instead, whole grains keep you full longer, reduce inflammation and improve your focus and concentration. By balancing blood sugar levels, whole grains may also help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
So whenever you eat a meal or snack, look for the words “whole grain” on the food label to make sure that it is truly a whole grain product (and not simply one with added flavor). Common examples include:
- Whole grain bread
- Whole wheat pasta
- Brown rice
As you can see, sunflower seeds provide various nutrients that help with memory and learning. In addition to the nutrients above, they are also a good source of magnesium and copper.
Sunflower seeds are a terrific snack for studying hard or cramming for an exam. However, if you have trouble falling asleep at night, it’s best to avoid eating them too close to bedtime. Having anything heavy on your stomach makes it harder to sleep well. If you do eat them at night and they keep you up, just cut back on the serving size next time or stop snacking before 9 PM.
Green tea is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that help protect the brain from oxidative stress. One study found that one hour after participants drank green tea, their brain activity was higher than when they drank a placebo.
Matcha has more polyphenols than regular green tea because you consume the whole leaves when you drink it. It’s also rich in L-theanine, a compound with calming effects that may improve memory and concentration due to its ability to increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. The polyphenols and L-theanine in matcha may benefit memory and attention by reducing age-related decline or preventing cognitive decline related to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
The vitamin C in citrus fruits can strengthen your immune system, reduce inflammation, and improve brain function.
You’ve probably heard that oranges are a good source of vitamin C, but other citrus fruits can provide you with an even higher amount of this important nutrient.
Vitamin C may help:
- Improve memory and concentration
- Protect brain cells from damaging free radicals
- Reduce oxidative stress in the brain
- Improve cerebral blood flow (the blood flow to your brain)
In addition to providing nutrients for your brain, citrus fruits also have cardiovascular benefits. They can help lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Besides making a great study snack, pumpkin seeds are loaded with nutrients that benefit your brain. Zinc is important for the body to retain memory and recall information, according to research from Nutrition Reviews. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of iron, essential for both the brain and body because it helps your cells transport oxygen throughout the bloodstream.
Pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium, which has been shown to help people relax, even if they’re experiencing anxiety or stress. The best part? In addition to these benefits, pumpkin seeds also contain tryptophan—you know, that amino acid in turkey makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner? It’s an essential component of sleep hormones and can help regulate your sleep cycle.
Beans and Lentils
Beans and lentils are packed with protein, fiber, and antioxidants. Beans are also high in folate, which helps to improve memory. Lentils are also a good source of iron, which helps to improve concentration.
For many, tomatoes are a tasty addition to salads and sandwiches. You might not know that tomatoes contain nutrients that can help improve brain function. Tomatoes are high in the antioxidant lycopene, which helps to slow down the decline in brain function. Lycopene is also shown to improve memory and learning.
Tomatoes also contain vitamin C, which increases blood flow to the brain. Vitamin C is also thought to help prevent cognitive impairment later in life. The potassium found in tomatoes may also help with memory in older adults.
Watermelon is a healthy snack for the brain. It is rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, and water. This keeps your body hydrated, which helps with mental clarity and can improve your ability to concentrate.
Watermelon also has many other health benefits:
- Good for the skin
- It helps you lose weight
- Good for the heart
- Good for bones
- Good for digestion
- Good for eyesight
So you’ve heard about kimchi, but what is it? Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made by fermenting vegetables, commonly cabbage and radishes. The fermentation process breaks down the lactose in the vegetables, making them easier to digest.
Kimchi has long been recognized as an excellent source of probiotics, great for your digestion. While many people know that fermented foods are good for their gut health, research has shown that probiotics can improve mental health. In a 2012 study conducted on mice with depression-like symptoms, researchers found that those who consumed probiotics were far less depressed than those who did not.
A popular herb used in traditional Asian medicine, ginseng has decreased stress and boosted your mood. Research has also found it may improve memory and concentration.
Ginseng is available as a supplement in most health food stores. You can take it with other nootropic supplements or on its own.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ll be happy to know that foods rich in vitamins are great for the brain, but they can also be downright delicious.
One of my favorites is cheese. It’s full of calcium, which helps improve brain function and power; it contains vitamin B2, which is vital to the brain and nervous system; it has vitamin B12, which aids in improving brain function; and it contains vitamin K2, which is vital to brain health. It’s also very tasty with an assortment of crackers or fresh veggies!
Greek yogurt is another excellent brain food to consider adding to your diet for studying long hours. High protein content can help you feel fuller for longer, meaning that you can stay energized while studying and avoid the temptation to snack on less healthy options. Additionally, Greek yogurt contains vitamin B12, which our brains need to function properly.
Soy is a rock star when it comes to brain-boosting foods for studying. Soy contains high amounts of protein—something you need if you’re studying hard—but it also contains antioxidants, which are chemicals that help protect your body from disease and damage caused by free radicals. In addition to helping you think clearer and focus better on what you’re memorizing, soy may also help keep your heart healthy and strong, boost your digestion, and even promote healthy bones!
It’s not your imagination: Almonds are a superfood. They’re packed with nutrients that are good for your body and brain. They have high levels of vitamin E, which is linked to reduced inflammation in the body. They also contain magnesium, which can help lower blood sugar, increase insulin sensitivity, and healthy fats and fiber, benefit heart health.
Almonds may also be good for your skin since they contain flavonoids that protect against sun damage and reduce the severity of UVB-induced skin cancers. And finally, almonds have been shown to improve cognitive performance in older adults who consume them regularly.
Perhaps most importantly for students’ needs at exam time: When eaten in moderation—a handful a day—almonds are less likely to lead to weight gain than other snacks (they fill you up, so you don’t overdo it), but they still provide more energy than many other options.
Dark chocolate is literal brain food for studying exams, as it packs some serious antioxidant power. In one study, researchers found that people who ate raw (not roasted) cocoa powder every day for eight weeks performed better on tests of attention and memory than those who did not. The flavonoids in dark chocolate also help to reduce age-related cognitive decline. Cacao is the best dark chocolate to buy since it has more flavonoids than regular dark chocolate; look for bars with at least 70% cacao.
Cocoa powder and caffeine can be particularly helpful during exam time. A 2017 study found that after drinking a beverage containing cocoa flavanols and caffeine, participants scored significantly higher on tests measuring attention, executive function, speed, and accuracy than after consuming beverages containing caffeine or just cocoa flavanols (but not both). People who consumed the beverage with both ingredients also reported feeling less tired throughout the day than the other groups. It was equal to taking short naps.
Finally, eating chocolate has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain and lower blood pressure in people who were already healthy before eating their daily dose of cacao—which means you could use the excuse “I’m staying up late studying” whenever you want some delicious dark chocolate without any consequences!
Black beans are high in fiber, which helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels. They are also high in protein and folate, a B vitamin that plays a role in brain function. In addition, black beans are high in magnesium, which aids memory and cognitive function. You can enjoy black beans as part of a taco salad or a bean and quinoa burger to give you an energy boost before studying for your exams.
With its whole-grain status and high fiber content, Brown rice is the perfect food to keep steady energy levels throughout the day. The grain is also a good source of magnesium, which plays an important role in learning, short and long-term memory, and mood regulation. Studies have shown that a diet rich in magnesium may help reduce your risk of heart disease. Brown rice also contains selenium, a mineral that helps with mood regulation and fertility.
Bananas are an easy food to grab in the morning or throw in a backpack before heading off to class. They contain an amino acid called tryptophan that helps the body produce serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood so you can stay focused and alert. Bananas also contain a good amount of fiber, which will help you feel full longer. This helps prevent overeating and promotes a healthy weight, which helps reduce stress on the brain.
The best part about bananas is that they are easy to add to your diet at any time of day. Try them sliced over whole-grain cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, as an afternoon pick-me-up snack with peanut butter, or as dessert in one of our no-bake recipes below.
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Non Brain Foods for Studying You Should Avoid While Studying
Now for the foods to avoid when studying. While many foods can help you focus and increase your alertness, there are also plenty of foods that you should avoid while studying. These foods will slow down your brain function or cause fatigue within minutes.
It would help if you mostly steered clear of the foods listed below during your study sessions, but they might be okay to enjoy in moderation outside of them.
Alcohol can do a number on the brain, so you should not include it on a list of smart study snacks or as part of your study routine. The effects range from physical to emotional and beyond. Consuming alcohol can make you feel tired and lethargic, which is not what you want when it’s time to sit down and focus on studying.
It’s also important to remember that drinking alcohol causes dehydration, leading to headaches and lack of energy, which are not helpful for study sessions! Alcohol can also hurt your state of mind, affecting your ability to focus and concentrate. Alcohol is known for impairing memory function—not something you would want from your study buddy.
Avoid sugary drinks at all costs. Studies have shown that sugar interferes with learning and memory recall. Besides, sugary drinks like soda and juice may seem refreshing, but they’re also diuretics—they dehydrate you. And who needs that?
Sugar is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can give you a burst of energy in the short term, but you’ll experience a crash that makes it difficult to concentrate on your studies. It’s also important to keep in mind that sugar can cause you to feel hungry shortly after eating—meaning that while it might help you stay awake, it won’t do much for staying focused.
Processed foods. These are foods that humans have manufactured, such as cheese, deli meats, frozen dinners, and prepackaged snacks. Processed foods are high in artificial ingredients and preservatives, and trans fats. They’re also high in sodium and sugar content. This can lead to weight gain and obesity if you don’t control how much of these packaged items you eat regularly.
Processed foods are not the best for your brain health because they can cause inflammation—which is not good for the brain or body! Additionally, processed foods often contain ingredients called excitotoxins that can damage the nervous system by overstimulating nerve cells until they die off prematurely.
For optimal memory retention during exams or other intensive study periods, avoid processed food products whenever possible!
Refined carbs (such as white bread and pasta)
Refined carbs are the enemy of your brain because they cause a spike in blood sugar levels (also known as glucose), which in turn causes a huge insulin release. That makes you feel sleepy and is not good for your brain. Refined carbs are also stripped of nutrients, like eating empty calories.
Some refined carbohydrates are white rice, white bread, pasta, muffins, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods made with all-purpose flour.
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