by Bess Dalby*

Whether you are too tired or too nervous, you may not feel like eating at all the morning of the SAT or ACT. However, I cannot stress enough how disastrous it can be if hunger strikes during a slew of difficult math problems.

The human brain uses a variety of nutritional components to function during strenuous activities, and requires even more nutrition if it is deprived of sleep. Here I will outline five major rules that will guide your test day food strategy so that you can avoid feeling hungry or sleepy during the test.

  • Rule No 1: Eat carbohydrates
    While it is true that the brain can eventually learn to burn fat for its fuel, its preferred source of energy is carbohydrate. However, too many refined carbohydrates at once will cause blood sugar to spike, leaving you feeling tired and hungry when the blood sugar comes crashing down. In this case it is best to avoid too much sugar and choose a source of carbohydrate that also contains fiber, fat, and protein to prevent spikes and dips in blood sugar. A good example would be a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese instead of a poptart and soda.
  • Rule No 2: Bring a high-calorie snack
    Don’t get caught feeling so hungry that you accidentally start eating your test booklet. Bring a snack that is portable and packed with calories: for example, peanut M&M’s, or nut and fruit trail mix.
  • Rule No 3: Drink fluids. . . but don’t overdo it!
    Dehydration can cause fatigue and headache, so don’t mess around when it comes to H2O. . . just don’t drink more than your bladder can handle! A good strategy is to drink plenty of fluid during breakfast but cut yourself off from all fluids (other than coffee, if you choose) one hour before the test begins.
  • Rule No 4: Use caffeine wisely
    Experienced coffee drinkers know that caffeine is a drug. . . and a highly effective drug at that! Caffeine not only helps relieve fatigue and tiredness it also can help to improve concentration in those with ADHD. The downside is, the more you drink the more resistant you will be to its effects. If you partake habitually in caffeine, whether from soda or coffee, you should continue that habit on the day of the test.The second drawback to caffeine is that drinking too much at one time will usually result in an energy crash later on. So if you drink a cup of coffee at breakfast, you may find that around noon you will suddenly feel very sleepy. The best way to avoid this is to drink smaller amounts of caffeine in spaced-out intervals. For example, if you plan on having one cup of coffee the morning of the test, have half a cup with breakfast and the other half during one of the five-minute breaks.The third downside to caffeine is that it can make you have to relieve yourself, which is terrible if you are in the middle of a test section. This can be avoided if caffeine is taken in the form of coffee or a Red Bull type energy drink, as opposed to soda, Sobe, or iced tea which all contain too much sugar and fluid.
  • Rule No 5: FAT!!
    So what is a healthy breakfast that doesn’t spike your blood sugar? How about instant oatmeal with skim milk and orange juice? Wrong!
    The aforementioned meal consists almost entirely of starches and sugars, and although it does contain some fiber and protein, it contains almost no fat. Fat, believe it or not, is the most powerful way to prevent spikes and dips in blood sugar. This is because fat is difficult for your body to digest, and as it’s digested it releases smaller amounts of energy over a longer period of time. And if eaten in tandem carbohydrates, it slows the rise in blood sugar as well. . . sweet!
[/list] Remember, now is not the time to be cholesterol-conscious… so fry up some eggs to fuel your academic marathon, and good luck!

*Bess Dalby studied ADHD and nutrition as an undergraduate, earning her degree in Health Science from James Madison University in 2009. She is currently a PhD Student in Bio-Medical Sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Kate vanSchaick’s notes on the above recommended foods:

    • Whole Wheat Bagel and cream cheese
                 340 cal 12 gr protein 50 gr carbohydrates 11 gr fat

A serving of lox (smoked salmon) adds essential fatty acids, omega 3s, which are said to aid neurotransmitters.

    • Whole Wheat Bagel, cream cheese, and lox
    • 439 cal 28 gr protein 50 gr carbohydrates 16 gr fat

Kate doesn’t recommend coffee to non-coffee drinkers but if you normally drink coffee you should not quit the day of the test. Headaches are a classic sign of caffeine withdrawal.

Also experiment the week before the test with different breakfast combinations. If you eat at 7:30am see how you feel until about 1pm. Do you get hungry? Do you feel draggy? Do you lose focus? Notice what foods help you stay focused and keep your energy level up. What snacks mid-morning help you keep it together? Read labels to get a good idea of the fat-protein-carbohydrate level of the foods you are eating.

Use commonsense. If you have celiac disease skip the bagel. If you are diabetic follow your doctor’s advice. Don’t drink three cups of coffee – you’ll vibrate off the walls.

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