GRE Brain Food: Diet Tips for Top Mental Fitness

GRE prep

GRE Brain Food (Pictured: Fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods

Nearly everyone knows that the foods they eat affect how well their bodies function. But many fail to realize that what they eat also has a considerable impact on how well their brains work. Here are some diet tips to help you get into top mental shape for the GRE.

The brain is an exceptionally active metabolic organ, which means that it must constantly consume energy to function.  The brain is also a picky eater. Research has consistently shown that foods with the right neurochemicals can help you concentrate, tune sensorimotor skills, stay motivated, magnify memory, increase reaction times, defuse stress, and, to a certain extent, even prevent mental aging.


While a healthy brain is determined in part by how much (or little) fat you eat, the more important factor is the kind of fat consumed. Maximum intellectual performance requires a specific type of fat known as omega-3 fatty acids, found most commonly in fish. So to ensure that your diet is rich in omega-3 fats, and that your brain is flush with this powerful nutrient, it's recommended that you eat plenty of oily fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, herring, mackerel, and anchovies.


Eating protein raises the levels of an amino acid called tyrosine, which prompts the brain to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine, important chemical messengers in the brain. Norepinephrine and dopamine serve to keep you energized as they stimulate receptors in the brain specific to alertness and activity. Poultry, seafood, soy products, and lean meat are the richest sources of protein. Dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain high concentrations as well.


Glucose from carbohydrates provides the fuel your brain uses to produce energy. But be careful when choosing your sources of carbohydrates! The key is to choose carbohydrates that are broken down by the body gradually and provide a steady, long-term source of energy (typically known as complex carbohydrates), as opposed to carbohydrates that have an immediate impact on the body and cause a rapid burst of energy that will fade quickly (simple carbohydrates). Whole grain foods such as cereals, wheat bran, and whole wheat pasta are key sources of complex carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables are another excellent source of carbohydrates that can provide long-lasting energy. Refined sugars are the most common simple carbohydrates and only fuel the brain for a short period of time and ultimately result in a demanding drop of energy or “crash.” Avoid refined sugars whenever possible.

Vitamins and Minerals

In addition to the foods discussed above, it is also a good idea to consider supplementing your diet with specific vitamins and minerals designed to promote proper bodily function. The 'B' complex vitamins are particularly important as they play a vital role in producing energy. Vitamins A, C, and E are powerful antioxidants and promote and preserve memory. Good sources of these vitamins include blueberries and other berries, red grapes, tomatoes, broccoli, garlic, spinach, carrots, whole grains, and soy.

Minerals are also critical to mental functioning and performance. Magnesium and manganese are crucial for sustained brain energy. Sodium, potassium, and calcium are also important in the thinking process as they facilitate the transmission of neurochemical messages in the brain. An easy way to get most of your important vitamins and minerals is to simply take a multivitamin each day.

The final key component in maintaining a healthy and efficient brain is also the simplest and most readily available: water. Studies have shown that the vast majority of adults do not consume enough water daily and the consequences can be severe. Even mild dehydration decreases your mental energy significantly, impairing memory and cognitive function. In fact, as little as a 2% drop in body water can cause faulty short-term memory, trouble with basic math, and difficulty focusing on a computer screen or on a printed page for more than a few seconds at a time. To stay properly hydrated, try to drink at least three liters of water per day.

Your GRE Brain Boost Menu

With all of this in mind, here are a few night-before-the test dinner and before-the-test breakfast suggestions:

Dinner the night before the test – omega-3 fatty fish (or lean meat) with spinach or broccoli, and potatoes or a few pieces of whole grain bread. Remember to drink plenty of water!

Try to have your dinner at least two to three hours before you go to bed to ensure a good night’s sleep without an overly full stomach.

Breakfast the morning of the test – eggs, oatmeal (or whole grain cereal, or a piece of wheat toast with peanut butter), and fresh fruit or juice.

Also, beware of coffee or other caffeinated drinks before the test as they tend to have the same detrimental effects as sugar, causing unpredictable boosts of energy/jitters followed by crashes and fatigue.

Avoid potential disaster by eating for your brain for at least a few days leading up to the test. That way, you’re sure that you won’t have any unpleasant reactions to foods that you may not normally consume.