The Importance of Good NUtrition during Exams – by Dr Kerryn Gibson

Exams are a stressful time for any teenager. They have to juggle usual school hours, extramural and sporting commitments, as well as family activities with dedicated revision time. Finding time to eat well-balanced, nutritious meals in between all of this is a further challenge, which many children do not prioritise.

They tend to eat when they are hungry and eat whatever is available. As a parent or carer you can help out by ensuring that when foods are eaten by your child, that these are healthy and nutritious. In doing so you will help to remove additional pressure.

The teenage years are a period of growth, with girls reaching the end of their pubertal growth spurt by the age of seventeen and boys by the age of eighteen or nineteen. Not only do they need to eat appropriately to meet their day to day nutritional requirements and to support this rapid period of growth, but also to fuel the many sports children compete in at this age. During an exam period the nutritional requirements of teens are elevated even further, as mental concentration levels increase and stress levels reach a peak. It can sometimes be a challenge to meet these high requirements through a balanced, nutritious intake. Overcoming this challenge can help children to excel and achieve both mentally and physically.

The brain relies on glucose (carbohydrate) for energy; it cannot function on anything else. Therefore to maintain concentration levels for a sustained period, as during a time of revision, maintaining stable blood glucose levels is paramount.

We burn glucose through day to day activities, playing sport and thinking. The three meals we eat per day are integral in ensuring that our glucose stores are kept replenished. The end of a busy school day, when children have invariably used up their glucose stores, is generally when the studying begins. If they are ‘running on empty’ it is unlikely that they will be able to maintain concentration levels for very long or get the most out of their revision time.

The questions generally asked are; What is a good breakfast? Does my child need snacks? Are the meals I prepare balanced?

Generally children will need three meals per day plus two to three small snacks in between these meals. The more active children are, the more they need to eat. The key is to provide fresh foods and stay away from processed foods or convenience foods. The latter are high in sugar and/or fat as well as preservatives/ colourants/ flavourants and can have a poor nutritional value. The danger with these foods is that they do not provide a sustained blood glucose release; instead they promote a sharp rise in blood glucose levels followed by a rapid drop. Foods high in various additives can cause fatigue and poor concentration levels in sensitive children. These effects are undesirable in children especially if they are playing sports and even more so when they are attempting to study and learn for exams.

Meals should preferably be prepared at home from fresh ingredients. They should be based on low GI starchy carbohydrates, and include vegetables, salad or fruit as well as lean protein. Snacks need to be low in fat and sugar and high in fibre. See table 1 for some snack ideas. By preparing foods yourself you have control over the ingredients and preparation methods. Relying on processed or convenience foods often renders us completely naive as to our dietary intake and we are swayed by slogans such as, ‘baked not fried’ or ‘lower in fat’ or ‘part of your 5 a day’ or ‘no added sugar’ and so on and so forth.

Looking into the use of the glycemic index can also be beneficial. Foods with a low glycemic index are useful to include as they provide a desirable sustained blood glucose release. There are various ways that these can be incorporated into a child’s diet.

As this is a period of growth dietary restrictions should be discouraged unless there are presenting food allergies or intolerances. A child should be encouraged to eat to their appetite, provided the foods chosen are fresh, wholesome foods as opposed to the frequently preferred ‘junk’ food (e.g. chips, chocolates, pastries, sweets and take aways).

General healthy eating advice can be applied to the majority of children, however it is important to be aware that individual requirements do vary. Dietary intakes can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual child depending on their activity level, age, stage of development and growth trends.

What about supplements?

For children in their teenage years, provided they are able to consume an adequately balanced diet to meet their requirements, there is no need to include a form of nutritional supplement. Should your child need to exclude a food group from their diet for medical reasons e.g. dairy allergy, or should they be unable to maintain a desirable growth trend on food intake alone, then a supplement may be warranted. Even during exams, a well planned diet can be ample to sustain concentration levels.

A paediatric dietitian is specialised in assessing and evaluating a child’s nutritional requirements taking all of the above into consideration. They can then advise accordingly to ensure, first and foremost, that an adequate growth pattern is maintained and that children meet their overall nutritional requirements to help them achieve their full potential.

Snack ideas

– Low fat yoghurt, flavoured milk or drinking yoghurt
– Fresh or dried fruit
– Fruit smoothies made with low fat milk
– Whole wheat crackers/ biscuits with low fat cheese, humous or guacamole
– Whole wheat toast with peanut butter, low fat cheese, avocado or fish paste
– Raw vegetable sticks with low fat cottage cheese, humous or guacamole
– High fibre cereal and yoghurt bars
– Milo, Horlicks or Ovaltine made with low fat milk
– Plain, salted nuts
– Low fat milk with digestive biscuits

Kerryn Gibson – Dietitian: Paediatric & Sport Nutrtion
– Email: gibsondietetics@gmail.com
– Cell: 082 574 2730
– Rooms: 031-3033 874
– Twitter: @DurbanDietitian

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