Fuel your fresher brain

Five tips for studying hard and smashing your first year of med school

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 21 October 2020
fresh food

Dr Hazel Wallace, doctor and founder of The Food Medic spotlighted the importance of nutrition in student life in a live Q&A at the BMA Virtual Freshers Festival on 14 October 2020. To help you eat well during your first year, watch the full Q&A recording, then check out these 5 nutrition tips from the BMA.

Eating right might be the last thing on your mind when it comes to starting life at Uni, but what we eat — and drink — has a direct impact on how we perform and feel every day.  By adopting healthy nutrition habits now, you’ll fuel your brain to power you through demanding lectures, stressful exams and an active social life, avoiding those energy dips that leave you napping at your desk or grabbing a bag of crisps or biscuits. For med school students, this is particularly important — taking care of yourself now and gaining a healthy respect for the body will be vital to your future success as a doctor. As you ready yourself for the year ahead, check out our top 5 tips on eating well as a med school fresher.


Fuel up right from the start with breakfast

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and although there are some scenarios that contradict this, it’s still the meal you need to get right! Eating the right foods when you first wake up in the morning can either set you up on a steady journey through the day (we’re talking blood sugars here) or it could begin the rollercoaster ride that leads to the 11am and 3pm energy crash.

So, what makes for a good breakfast? Protein, quality fats and complex carbohydrates provide the energy and nutrients our body needs after fasting overnight, without the refined sugars that are so easily turned into glucose and released into our blood.

  • Eggs are a great source of protein and fats. They contain so many essential nutrients that they’re considered one of nature’s superfoods (move over spirulina!). Not only are they gluten free and vegetarian but cheap to buy and easy to batch-cook for a quick grab-and-go breakfast option.

Try baking some egg muffins, or whipping up a frittata or an omelette – and while you’re there, throw in some veggies too!

  • A burrito is a fun way to turn your breakfast into an easy-to-carry (and devour) wholemeal or gluten-free wrap. Use ingredients such as eggs, tomatoes, avocado and spinach to create a great balance of all macronutrients (protein, fats and carbs), whether you’re vegan (just swap the eggs for tofu scramble or chickpeas), vegetarian, or like a bit of everything.

Stick to wholemeal wraps (or gluten-free sweet potato wraps) and avoid the white refined option to prevent that rollercoaster of blood sugar. Tip: Mix up the ingredients and try it for lunch too!

  • Porridge is a warming breakfast in the colder months but on its own, just oats and milk/mylk, might leave you hungry and sleepy before lunch. To bulk up this breakfast, add a source of protein such as crushed nuts, seeds, nut butters, or protein powder.

Make it the night before for ease and experiment with different flavours — carrot cake anyone? While you’re there, don’t forget to get one of your 5-a-day in too – berries (frozen is cheapest and best in winter), apple (with cinnamon!), figs, pears, or bananas.


Protein — it’s not just for athletes

It’s true, we all need a good amount of protein every day and not just for the ‘gainz’ but for life. Protein is in every cell in the body and forms the building blocks of neurotransmitters, immune cells and antibodies, enzymes (including the ones that help us digest food), hormones, cell structure, nutrient transportation, energy and even our DNA!

Sources of protein include animal products (eggs, meat, fish, seafood and dairy), nuts, seeds, soy products (tofu), beans, lentils and quinoa. Add a bit of protein to every meal and having a variety will support intake of the 9 essential amino acids — those that the body can’t make. Learn how to mix up the proteins in your diet, while batch-cooking on a budget:

Curious about protein powders? This can be a cheap and easy way to include protein into your diet, but it isn’t essential.


3. Hit that 5-a-day, every day, by eating the rainbow

It’s not just a fad — the government campaign to encourage five portions of fruit and/or veg a day is backed by science, and more recently we’re seeing that up to 10 portions is optimal.

Fruit and veg contain a whole host of phytochemicals that are vital to our health and can reduce the risk of illnesses (they don’t make us superheroes but it’s the closest thing we have).

The different colours in fruit and veg indicate the different phytochemicals they contain, so by eating the rainbow you’re able to consume a multitude of nutrients your body will thank you for.

Take some inspiration from a fellow doctor who created the chart below. By the time you’ve added tomato and spinach to your breakfast burrito, courgette and aubergine to your lunch, and thrown baby corn, peppers, onion and carrots into your stir-fry, you’ve smashed 8 different colours of veg — you only need an apple and some berries as a snack to make it 10!


The brain-loving snacks to keep in your bag

While you’re studying, your brain is using a lot of fuel — 25% of our resting energy expenditure to be exact! You need more than just three square meals a day to keep you going. The type of snack is key to keeping your brain fuelled in the right way. We all love a biscuit, slice of cake or packet of crisps and these are fine on occasion, but for the day-to-day, your brain will prefer something with the nutrients it needs:

  • Unsalted nuts and seeds
  • Berries
  • Veg sticks and humous
  • Apple and nut butter
  • Energy balls and bars
  • Protein truffles
  • One of those egg muffins or a slice of frittata from breakfast!


Stay hydrated (not just with coffee)

You don’t need us to tell you that your body is made up of 60% water and that headaches, fatigue, dizziness, brain fog, forgetfulness, and generally feeling a bit naff, are all associated with dehydration.

However, as much as we try to remind ourselves, it so easy to forget to meet the recommended 1.5-2 litres of water every day. So, grab yourself a BPH-free water bottle, one with measurements and timings on the side if you need the extra encouragement and fill it with fresh water.

Don’t like the taste? Add some fresh lemon or lime juice, some fresh mint leaves or root ginger. Herbal teas also contribute to your water intake and a drop of sugar-free squash won’t do you any harm either if that’s your preference.

As for coffee and tea, a couple of cups a day is perfectly fine — enjoy them! But, copious amounts of caffeine won’t help you in the long run, and you’re likely to be left feeling very groggy, nursing a headache, when you can’t get your hands on a cup. Enjoy your caffeine before midday to avoid disrupting your sleep and try to stick to 1-2 cups a day where possible — remember that there will be some long days ahead!


Start your first year off right

As a doctor, your job will be to care for your patients and their health. But you can’t be there for them and provide the proper care they need if you’re ill or overly tired.

As a student, you’ll face a similar situation – you won’t be able to learn as well or as quickly, or manage the high level of stress that will come with your courses and exams, if you’re not giving your body the fuel it needs.

Your first year is your chance to start fresh and start taking care of yourself to develop the healthy eating habits that will support you and drive your career in the future. Now’s the time to stop skipping meals, start drinking more water, and load up on proteins, veggies and healthy snacks!

For more great nutrition tips, hear what Dr Hazel Wallace for med students by watching her Q&A at the BMA Virtual Freshers Festival.