Eating during exams

Students, exams are here… get out your study notes and remember that a well-nourished brain works better!

End of year exams are an important source of stress. Some eating habits are better than others to help students get through this hectic period more easily.

Does stress affect your appetite?

The link between stress and appetite causes various reactions, sometime diametrically opposed. Some people get knots in their stomach and lose their appetite while others eat constantly to satisfy their uncontrollable cravings. Although these diverse reactions are unclear, studies confirm a phenomenon: stress-related cravings are almost always filled by food that is high in sugar, fat, or both.  

Tempting food on the fly

Donuts, cookies, croissants, chips, chocolate: easy and tempting foods that don’t help your concentration and stuff you with unnecessary calories, refined sugar and bad fat. Need energy? Here are some nutritious suggestions that are just as easy to grab to satisfy that craving:


  • slice of bread with peanut butter and jam
  • date square
  • Greek yogurt and honey
  • chocolate milk and fig cookies
  • banana nut bread
  • dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries) and soy beverage
  • dark chocolate-covered almonds


  • Pita chips and hummus
  • Bag of cheese curds
  • Oven-baked tortillas and salsa
  • Chicken wrap
  • Raw vegetables and salted nuts
  • Red bean burrito
  • Microwave popcorn

Does exam stress affect your digestion?

Avoid caffeine, as well as fatty or spicy foods. A helpful trick: your system tolerates liquid foods better, plus it’s easier to swallow. Make sure your choice contains protein to provide you with enough energy to last a while. Here are some ideas:

  • eggnog in the blender (milk + egg + a bit of sugar)
  • soft tofu milkshake + fruit + juice
  • mango smoothie with yogurt
  • drinkable yogurt
  • vegetable soup (made with milk)


Stress slowly subsides during a three-hour exam but you may find you need a little pick-me-up. Dig in your backpack and pull out one of these snacks to quietly nibble on in class without making too much noise: 

  • banana
  • juice box
  • carton of milk or soy beverage
  • dried apricots
  • mini-gouda or other individually-wrapped cheese
  • energy bar (remove the wrapper before putting in your bag)

There’s nothing wrong with indulging in the occasional candy or pastry! To avoid enjoying too much of a good thing, never eat directly from a box of chocolates or a tub of ice cream. Serve yourself a reasonable portion in a bowl.

Too busy studying to eat?

This is not a shortcut to success. Skipping a meal, especially breakfast, because you have too much work to do will leave you lacking energy in the short and medium term. An empty stomach leads to poor concentration, headaches and even symptoms like dizziness and nausea.

There’s a simple rule to follow if you have an irregular exam schedule that disrupts your regular mealtime: don’t go more than three to five hours without refuelling with a nutritious meal or snack.  

What’s the best thing to eat before an exam?

The ideal meal to eat is one that is rich in protein and light on fat. Protein fills you up and gives you energy that lasts longer.

It is easily found in turkey, meat, fish, eggs, milk products, nuts, grains, legumes and cereal products. Fat is slow to digest and can cause sudden bouts of fatigue or stomach pain. Limit or outright avoid breaded and fried food, fries and poutine, rich cream-based sauces, cold cuts, donuts, etc. And don’t down any alcohol before an exam if you want to keep a level head!

Here are some pre-exam meal ideas for students on the go:

  • vegetable omelette + tomato juice + whole wheat bun
  • tuna sandwich + milk + apple
  • bean salad + whole wheat baguette + yogurt

Is bikini season just around the corner?

This is not the time to start a fast or a diet to get bikini ready for the pool this summer. A strict diet can affect your nutritional reserves and cause a hormonal imbalance. You risk showing up for the exam like one of the walking dead, in a bad mood, and with a headache to boot. Not a good combination to calm your frayed nerves.

Is coffee a student’s best friend?

Are you addicted to 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine? This natural psychotropic, better known as caffeine, has a stimulating effect on the body when consumed in moderation. Caffeine stimulates the heart, increases alertness and relaxes muscles. Its effects are felt 15 to 45 minutes after ingestion.  

Canadian adults get an estimated 60% of their caffeine from coffee and about 30% from tea. Adults will not suffer any adverse health effects if they respect the caffeine intake established by Health Canada: 400 mg per day. This equals three cups of coffee. For youth aged 13 to 18 years, it is recommended that the daily intake should not exceed 2.5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. Do the math.


A single cup of coffee makes a person more alert when tired. However, for those with sensitive constitutions or who consume too much, caffeine can cause a headache, insomnia, anxiety, palpitations and tremors, especially on an empty stomach. Caffeine also increases the secretion of acid in the stomach. This should be avoided at all costs if exam stress turns your stomach inside out.

Measuring stimulants

In addition to coffee and tea, caffeine is a natural ingredient found in the leaves, seeds and fruit of other plants such as guarana, yerba maté, cocoa and kola. It is also manufactured and used in some carbonated drinks and medicines such as cold and headache remedies. Super popular with the younger crowd, energy drinks owe their stimulating effect on a caffeine-sugar combination. Most of these drinks contain 80 mg of caffeine per 250 ml (1 cup) portion, the equivalent of an average cup of coffee, though they often come in larger sizes. Canadian law does not currently require caffeine to be listed on the label, except when it is added to a product separately as a pure substance. It is therefore not recommended to consume more than two small cans or 500 ml (2 cups) of an energy drink per day and avoid mixing it with alcohol. As for the sugar content, we’re talking about 9 packs per every 250 ml (1 cup) of energy drink!

Other ingredients found in energy drinks include taurine (an amino acid also found in meat and dairy products) and glucuronolactone (a carbohydrate produced by the liver). To date, no study has succeeding in proving their stimulating effect in humans.

Well, the break’s over… get back to studying and good luck!

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.