Eating Right for HSC Success

Learn how to eat nutritiously to maximise your brain power!
Eating right for HSC Success - hero banner

You’ve probably heard this saying before: “you are what you eat”. This is very true! Eating a nourishing, nutritious and well-rounded diet will help your brain flourish for your studies. So, let’s learn about the recommended Australian diet, why eating right is crucial for your studies and steps you can take to eat right for HSC success.


In this article about eating right, we discuss:


What are the Australian Dietary Guidelines?

Remember seeing the food pie in school or at the doctor? (The pie chart, not a canteen meat pie ?.) Well, that chart refers to the Australian Government’s Guide to Healthy Eating.

Here, you can see 5 categories:

  • Grains: Cereal, whole grain, high cereal fibre varieties
  • Vegetables and legumes (aka beans)
  • Fruit
  • Dairy: Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives
  • Protein: Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans.

Eating Right for HSC Success - Australian Dietary Guideline Food Pie Chart (1)

It is recommended that your meals include foods from all 5 categories in the portions proportionate to the pie chart above! For example:

  • Plenty of vegetables (average 5 a day);
  • Plenty of grain foods;
  • A good amount of fruit (2 a day);
  • A good amount of lean meat and poultry, and other protein like tofu, legume/beans and eggs;
  • A good amount of dairy products; and
  • Small amounts of oil and processed food.

So, your meals should make up of mostly vegetables and grains, with good amounts of protein, fruits and dairy products, and very limited oils and processed foods.

The Australian government also specifies 5 guidelines that are recommended for public health. This includes:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose nutritious foods and drinks to meet your energy needs
  2. Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious food from the 5 categories
  3. Limit foods with saturated fat, added salt, added sugar, and alcohol
  4. Encourage and support breastfeeding
  5. Care for, prepare, and store your food safely

So, it is important that you are consciously trying to meet these goals every day!


Why is eating right crucial for your studies?

So, now that you know what you should be eating, let’s see how nutritious meals and diets can affect your studies!


1. Healthy eating improves cognitive functions like memory and concentration

Over the years, studies have shown that what you eat directly affects your brain and its cognitive functions like memory and concentration. Our brain is the most complex organ of our body; it keeps our body functioning properly and it is responsible for our memory, concentration, and thinking. So, your brain constantly requires proper nutrition to properly function.

When we eat food, our body breaks it down and absorbs the nutrients. Our blood cells then absorb these nutrients and carry them all over your body, including your brain cells. So, it is crucial that you are eating from all 5 categories mentioned above to ensure that your brain is consuming all the necessary nutrients like vitamins, glucose, and healthy fats to function and thrive.

Rememer, eating foods from all categories ensures that you are receiving all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed for your bodily functions.

So, if you aren’t eating from a particular food category or if you’re eating too many processed foods and saturated fats, you might find that it is harder to concentrate or even remember your study material.

A study from the University of California’s School of Medicine found that iron deficiency in school students decreases dopamine transmissions, which also affects cognitive functions. Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is responsible for our pleasure and reward sensations, and our memory, learning capabilities, sleep and digestion. When you have low dopamine levels, you will find that you are less alert, have trouble concentrating, and find little to no motivation to complete activities like studying!

Another study found that eating foods that are high in natural fats, like omega-3, directly increase concentration and memory. Fun fact, our brains are 70% fat. So, it is crucial that you are consuming enough healthy fats to maintain your brain functions. Remember, this doesn’t refer to saturated fats found in McDonald’s or chip packets. Healthy fats refer to natural fats found in eggs, avocado, salmon, chia seeds, and olive oil.

Many other studies have found a direct link between diets high in sugar and unsaturated fats and lowered concentrations and memory. This is because high sugar and fat diets directly affect the hippocampus region of the brain, the area that is responsible for learning and memory.

Eating right for HSC Success - diet can improve brain functions


2. Poor diets are linked to depression, and low moods and behaviours

We just learned about all the ways that diet can affect your cognitive functions, so let’s turn to emotions and behaviours. Did you know that your diet can increase or decrease your chances of depression?

Your diet can either make you feel energised and motivated, or it can bring your mood down and even contribute to depression.

A study found that people with high glycemic diets (diets with low amounts of vegetables and high amounts of carbohydrates and sugars) are more prone to depression, low motivation, and fatigue.

Another PLOS ONE study found that people with high trans-fat diets were 48% more likely to develop depression.

Having depression, low moods, and low motivation will adversely affect your studies. This is because depression makes it harder for you to concentrate, find the motivation to study, and it even affects your memory and ability to think properly. This is why it is so important that you are eating a wide variety of foods from all of the food categories.

Eating right for HSC Success - diet links to mood and depression


Ways you can ensure you’re eating right for your HSC

Now that you know how diets can affect your studies, let’s see the different steps you can take to ensure that you are eating a well-rounded and nutritious diet to help you get HSC success.


1. Prepare well-rounded and nutritious meals early

Sometimes, life gets busy and you don’t have enough time to think about what to eat for lunch or what to make yourself for dinner.

Often, this becomes an excuse for students to buy takeaway food and fast foods, or even skip meals. Although eating fast foods and takeaway foods once in a while is okay, eating it nearly every day will be detrimental to your health and your cognitive functions.

Skipping meals is also a big ‘no no’ because it lowers your metabolism which slows down your brain functions.

To ensure that you are eating 3 well-rounded and nutritious meals, you should always prepare early! Planning what you want to eat for the whole week will erase the difficulty of thinking about what you want for lunch the night before school.

So, to do this, you should:


1. Dedicate a day of the week to plan out your meals:

Keep a notebook to jot down your meal ideas. Every Sunday, try to plan out breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the whole week. You can eat the same thing every day for a whole week (which will be easy to prepare) or spice it up every day. It’s your choice!

This ensures that you are eating 3 nutritious meals every day and that you are not wasting any time trying to think about what you want to eat on the day.


2. Include ingredients from all food categories:

When you are planning your meals, remember to include fruits, veggies, grains, protein and dairy products. This will help you eat a well-rounded meal and not skip out on a particular food group.


3. Cook your meals early:

Do you find yourself rushing in the morning to get ready and prepare lunch and you end up skipping your breakfast? To prevent this, prepare your lunches (and breakfast) at night, so when you wake up, your lunch is already packed and ready to go.

This will save your precious morning time to eat a nutritious and balanced breakfast.

If you want to be more prepared, you can plan your week’s worth of lunch on Sunday night! Pack all of your lunches in separate lunch boxes or containers and keep them in the fridge until the day comes.


4. Bring your parents into the process:

The reality is, your parents are most likely responsible for cooking your dinner or lunch or breakfast! So, it is a good idea to bring them into your planning process.

Discuss what to get at the grocery store, what to cook for which days, how to incorporate a particular food group into your diet, or even take turns cooking meals throughout the week.

This is a good way to ensure that your family is on the same page and are all eating well-rounded meals together.

Eating right for HSC Success - plan meals early


2. Swap processed foods and drinks for healthier alternatives

It is very tempting to snack on chocolates and chips and treat yourself to chocolate thick shakes during your exam times because “you’re studying hard”. However, eating too many highly processed and sugary foods can actually negatively affect your cognitive functions.

therefore, it is crucial that you are making a conscious decision to reduce the amounts of processed foods and drinks you are consuming, especially around stressful exam periods.

To do this, you can find healthier alternatives to these processed snacks. Here are some examples:

Instead of this:Try this:
Soft drinks or energy drinks100% fruit juice, smoothies or milk
Ice-creamYoghurt or frozen yoghurt (with berries and granola)
ChipsSalted popcorn, vegetable chips, nuts or seeds
Sweets, chocolate lolliesFruits, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, or yoghurt
Fast food snacksCrackers with cheese or carrots/vegetable sticks with hummus
CoffeeGreen tea or herbal tea


3. Eat in moderation and don’t be too restrictive

Remember, you can eat ice cream, chicken nuggets and other foods you love! They are no  “bad and banned” foods. Just make sure you eat them in moderation.

Remember, what is more important when it comes to eating, is your attitude and relationship towards food.

When you start to think about certain types of foods as “unhealthy” or “junk”, you start to create an unhealthy association with those foods. Banning and restricting them will only make you crave them more. Once you give in and finally eat them, you will feel guilty and ashamed about yourself!

This is not the relationship we want to build around food, especially because it can lead to eating disorders. Instead, you should eat what you are craving in small portion sizes. This ensures that you aren’t finishing a whole family packet of chips in one sitting. Treating yourself to a small snack here and there won’t hurt you! It will only remove your cravings.

Eating right for HSC Success - eat in moderation


4. Boost your energy with superfoods

Although there are no real superfoods, the term superfood is used to label foods that are rich in nutrients and have a positive impact on your health. It is believed that these foods will help increase your brain health… especially useful during your exam periods.

Remember, eating full nutrient-rich meals is the best way to nourish your brain. However, these superfood snacks are a great addition to your diet to boost your studying game.

So, let’s see what they are:


5. Remember to drink water

Have you ever had a headache that went away immediately after you drink water?

This is because your body is 75% water… In particular, your brain is 85% water.

When you aren’t drinking, your cells are working in overdrive, which will cause you to feel lethargic, tired, and even lose concentration.

Remember, your brain needs water to function.

thus, it is crucial that you are constantly replenishing your body’s cells with water to prevent yourself from getting dehydrated. Hydrating yourself will help your body transport the necessary nutrients to your brain to ensure that your transmitters are functioning properly!

Aim to drink 8-11 cups of water a day. That is, 1.7-3.3 litres of water a day! If you are exercising and sweating, you should aim to drink more water to replace the lost liquids.

Eating right for HSC Success - drink water


What 95+ ATAR students say about eating right

95+ ATAR students always stress the importance of eating nutritiously. Let’s take a look at some high scoring Matrix graduate’s advice on eating!


Isaiah’s Hacks: How I Aced Year 12 by Learning to Focus

Make sure you have the energy to do the work, or you won’t do it. If you don’t have the energy, perhaps your brain is telling you that:

  • Your plan sucks
  • You’re dehydrated
  • You’re hungry, or
  • Maybe you’re just not used to this work.

If this is the case, then plan accordingly:

  • Make your plan highly-specific
  • Drink water regularly (even if you have to go to the toilet regularly)
  • Eat healthy snacks such as almonds
  • Make sure that you eat your meals at regular times
  • Build regular routines for studying each subject (some students print out a schedule that dictates their entire day and they follow this throughout the year – don’t do that – there’s no flexibility there).

You need to understand that you will need a lot of discipline to form a habit, but once that habit is formed, you’ll instinctively stick to the habit.

Eating right for HSC Success - Isaiah's Hacks_ How I Aced Year 12 by Learning to Focus


Jehan’s Hacks: How I Scored An ATAR of 99.35

You’ll need a healthy body for a healthy mind. Food is also a necessity, and I’m not talking about Red Bull for breakfast and late-night ice cream runs. HSC students burn energy studying, so they need 5 regular, healthy meals each day. Superfoods like fish, blueberries, almonds, honey, etc. are also recommended during the HSC. Just research foods that increase information retention and you’ll be surprised at the difference they make!

Eating right for HSC Success - Jehan's Hacks_ How I Scored An ATAR of 99.35


Amanda’s Hacks: How to Get into a Routine for Exam Success to Achieve a 99.85 ATAR

I keep healthy by running at least once a week and eating healthy snacks. Ice cream is great (life is too short to go without it) but only in moderation.

Eating right for HSC Success - Amanda's Hacks_ How to Get into a Routine for Exam Success to Achieve a 99.85 ATAR


Penelope’s Study Hacks: How To Study Effectively Through Uncertainty

Sometimes even the basics seem undoable, but we have to take care of ourselves in Year 12 because we have to come out the other end in one piece!

So, if you can, remember to:

  • Eat 3 square meals a day even during long days of online class
  • Drink your recommended 2L+ of water every day
  • Get outside, even if just for 10 mins or so.

Eating right for HSC Success - Penelope's Study Hacks_ How To Study Effectively Through Uncertainty


What should you learn from this?

Eating nutritious and well-rounded meals throughout the day is crucial to allow your brain to function and flourish properly, especially when you are studying hard. However, what is more important is that you develop a healthy relationship with food. Always remember to eat from all food categories, and eat things in moderation (don’t restrict certain foods)!

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