Comfort Food, Study Crams and Mood: How to survive this exam season

Comfort Food Blog

By Sabrina Duong 
Health & Wellbeing Ambassador

As university students, we all know that exam time can be stressful. With assessments piling up, it can feel like there is so much to do but so little time. It's completely normal to feel stressed, especially during the last few weeks of term. However, did you know that making small changes to your food habits can improve your stress levels, exam performance, and overall mood?

Many of us turn to comfort foods during stressful times. These are dishes that evoke a sense of nostalgia, warmth, and satisfaction - they bring happiness to the brain. Our memories, personal preferences, and emotions often compel us to crave certain foods when we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Sometimes these cravings come randomly and can be a subconscious sign that we’re trying to soothe ourselves when we're feeling overwealmed. 

Did you know that the type of foods we eat can impact our moods?

Comfort foods make us feel good, but it's not just because they taste great but also because they are often attached to a memory or person who made us feel safe, loved and cared for. But this attachment to memory is not the only way that the foods we eat impact our moods. When you ask someone what their go-to comfort food is, they will most likely respond with fried chicken, pizza, and chocolate (just to name a few). There's a scientific reason for this. These foods are usually high in fat, sugar, and starch, which helps our body produce a chemical called serotonin (Serotonin is known as a 'happy' chemical), which makes us feel calmer and relaxed and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.

It's only natural for us to seek out things that bring us that warm, fuzzy feeling when we're feeling overwealmed; we've all been there. However, long term, these foods can often have the opposite effect. Foods high in sugar, fried foods and high GI carbohydrates can impact our mood and ability to retain information. High GI carbohydrates are foods that are quickly broken down into glucose and rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. This spike is usually followed by a crash, which can lead to feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. These foods can also lead to inflammation in the body, which has been linked to negative effects on mental health.

On the other hand, a diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, can have a positive impact on mood and cognitive function. These foods are digested more slowly, leading to a gradual and sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream, which helps to maintain stable blood sugar levels and prevent mood swings and crashes. Additionally, these foods are rich in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants, which have been shown to support brain health and cognitive function.

It's important to remember that moderation is key. No one is asking you to give up your 3 piece feed.

But if you're starting to notice feelings of fatigue, poor memory and mood swings, it might be time to take a look at what you're putting in your body and make some simple changes to your meals for the long-term gain of good mental health, graduating and your overall physical wellbeing.

Top 3 tips for making simple changes to the food we eat

It only takes small changes to make a huge impact! 

Add in extra fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide a great source of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fibre. By consuming an adequate number of fruits and veggies it can help lower the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Another plus is they taste good too!

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 5% of Australians aged 18-24 consume the recommended daily intake of vegetables. Similarly, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that less than half (49%) of Australians aged 18-24 meet the recommended daily intake of fruit.

The recommended daily intake, according to the Australian Healthy Eating Guide, is 5 servings of veggies and 2 servings of fruits. How? It can be as easy as making a fruit smoothie!

Read Australian Healthy Eating Guide

Choose low GI foods

Feeling slumped with low energy during the day or when you’re studying?

Our body gets energy from breaking down glucose into simple sugars from the carbs we eat. Carbohydrates play a vital role in providing energy to the body and brain function. However, consuming high-GI carbohydrates can cause rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar levels, which can lead to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and decreased cognitive function. 

Low GI foods release sugars into your body more slowly they prevent the rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar levels which maintains your energy level during the day and study period. This can lead to better cognitive function and improved memory recall. low-GI foods have also been shown to decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2017-18, 5.1% of the Australian population had been diagnosed with diabetes, and a further 2% had undiagnosed diabetes. By incorporating low-GI foods such as wholegrain foods, fruits, vegetables, and legumes into your diet, you can improve your energy levels and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes.

The glycaemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods that contain carbs and shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar levels. When you’re feeling tired, it could be because of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) or high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia) level so it is important to find the balance which low GI foods are perfect for.

Some low GI foods are:  

  • Wholegrain foods – mixed grain breads, barley, quinoa  
  • Fruits – berries, plums, kiwi fruit and grapefruit 
  • Vegetables – lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and peppers 
  • Legumes – beans, chickpeas, lentils and split peas  

Reduce the salt intake

Did you know that approximately 21% of high blood pressure cases are directly linked to a diet that is high in sodium? High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can lead to serious health problems later in life, such as heart disease and stroke.

You may be thinking that blood pressure isn't something you need to worry about; however, A study published in the Australian Journal of Primary Health found that university students had a higher prevalence of hypertension compared to the general population.

Eating foods high in salt can trigger an increase in blood pressure, but when already stressed can further elevate these feelings. Now thinking back, do you think your comfort food contains a lot of salt? 

The general recommended daily intake is 2000mg of salt, which is about 6.5 McDonald’s 3g salt sachets. Fast foods are high in salt with the 24 Pack Chicken Nuggets at McDonald’s containing a whopping 1900mg of salt and 1966mg in a 3-piece box at KFC.

To cut down the salt intake, you can:  

  • Choose whole, unprocessed foods and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables 
  • Check the food labels to help choose low-salt options 
  • Use other flavouring alternatives such as herbs, spices, and citrus  
  • Cut back on salty takeaway foods 

Want to have a check up or speak to a doctor about your heart health? 

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What's next?

What are some other simple changes you can think of to add a twist to your comfort foods? With exams and assessments coming up, it is important to know how you’re feeling inside out, and by that, we mean to take care of yourself (mentally, physically and emotionally)!  

Interested in our other upcoming events? Stay tuned for more exciting events to come! 

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