How to get your diet sorted for exams

Exam time is easily one of the most stressful times of the semester. Between trying to balance study with everything else happening at this time of year, sometimes our diets can suffer. Whether we’re snacking on whatever we can find at Pinkies during a cram session or eating takeout because we don’t have time to cook, the exam season can mean that we might not always make the healthiest choices.

Erin Clarke is an accredited and practising dietician, as well as a PhD candidate in Nutrition and Dietetics at UON. She says that the stress of exam periods and the amount of time they take up can cause a lot of students’ diets to suffer.

“During these high stress periods it is common for students to swap out healthy eating habits for convenience foods such as fast food,” she said. She also said that they’re more likely to choose energy dense, nutrient poor snacks and prioritise coffee and energy drinks over eating consistent meals and sleeping regularly. According to Erin, managing to have a balanced diet and trying to stick to healthier food habits can actually help your academic performance.

“Studies found that university students who eat breakfast, have regular meals and eat more fruit have higher academic achievement than those who do not,” she said. Eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods and limiting the amount of junk food you’re consuming can help prepare your body and brain for the exam period. Alternatively, skipping meals and relying on takeout and snack foods can make it harder for you to succeed.

“These habits can mean that your body and brain is missing out on essential nutrients and a regular supply of energy that help it function at its best,” she said. “This can result in decreased focus and academic performance.”

But what can we do to eat better during exam time, especially when we’re already so stressed and time poor? Luckily, Erin has a few tips for how we can keep on top of our healthy eating habits during exam time.

Eat Breakfast

You’ve probably heard this before but that doesn’t make it any less true. As simple as it sounds, eating breakfast means you’ll have sustained energy to get you through whatever the day throws at you – from surprise questions in the exam to the much-needed extra shift at work. Erin recommends nutritious options like oats and muesli with fruit and yoghurt over sugar-loaded cereals.

Eat regular meals

While it might seem quicker and more time-efficient to snack and graze over the course of the day, it’s better for your energy levels to have regular meals in the lead up to exams and on exam day. Plus, making regular meals a priority can be a welcome break from study. Plan to have lunch with friends as a reward for all your hard work or spend an evening relaxing by making your favourite dinner.

Choose more whole foods

Whole foods, that is food that is minimally processed with as few additives as possible, are going to keep you full of energy for longer through exam time. Choose wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, lean meats, nuts and dairy over takeaway or packaged snacks.

Swap your snacks

If you are going to be snacking through out the day, ditch the chocolate, chips, and soft drinks for some healthier alternatives. Fruit and yoghurt, nuts, vegetable sticks and dips can be just as easy to snack on while also helping you stay focused and energised. Drinking plenty of water over soft drinks or coffee will also help.

Have some healthy and easy meal options

Obviously one of the biggest issues is that the exam period leaves us with so little time that cooking a nutritious meal just won’t fit into our schedule. Erin says that the best way to overcome this is to stock your cupboards and freezer with simple ingredients to make quick and healthy meals. A stir fry with lean meats, frozen vegetables and 90 second brown rice can be a super convenient alternative to a takeout dinner while a simple salad with canned tuna can make for an easy lunch.


If you’re interested in diet and how you can use it as your secret weapon to overcoming stress and doing the best you can at uni, Erin is currently helping run a new study called Aim4Me. Aim4Me is a twelve-month program that provides free personalised healthy eating advice to young adults aged between 18 and 24. The Aim4Me program is run by health experts like Erin from universities across Australia so the diet information you’ll receive is evidenced-based and from professional dieticians. Participating also means you go into the draw to win gift vouchers and gives you the opportunity to raise money for charities like OzHarvest.

To find out more information and to sign up, check out the Aim4Me website.

If you’re a Newcastle resident, Aim4Me is also looking for participants to take part in in-person sessions as part of the study. Doing so means you’ll also have the opportunity to get information on your body composition for free. If you’re in Newcastle and keen to find out more and sign up, follow this link.