When Lindsey Shifley found out that her 6-year-old daughter Abbie was having troubles in school, she felt lost and wanted to do something. That something turned out to be changing the food Lindsey served Abbie and her brother, clearing out processed sugar, non-organic ingredients, gluten and dairy. The change was so dramatic that even Shifley herself was taken aback. After less than 2 weeks of healthy eating, Abbie was showing signs of catching up in school and was suffering from fewer episodes of inattention.
Now, less than a year after the initial cupboard purge, Shifley – a Chicago resident – is taking her success on the road. She documented her struggles with transforming her kids' diets on a blog that attracted attention of one of the biggest healthy eating crusaders, chef Jamie Oliver. Shifley is now a food ambassador for Oliver's Food Revolution.
"We've managed to gather a little army of ambassadors, which gets bigger every year," says Oliver, who founded a charity and hosted a television series to educate people about healthier eating. "It's simply a way of connecting people throughout the world who care and want to make a difference."
By becoming a food ambassador, Shifley launched a crusade to change food in her district.
"The realization that Abbie could not eat the school food anymore is how I stumbled upon Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution website in the first place," Shifley says. "I realized the potential for more Abbies out there who would benefit."
What forced Shifley's hand was the fact that if Abbie didn't turn around her academic performance, medication would have been the most likely next step – something Shifley just didn't want. And in this, she is hardly alone. Many parents with kids who are struggling in school are looking at options that don't involve a doctor's prescription pad. Food presents a very tempting alternative.
Recent studies have shown these parents might be on to something. A meta-analysis of 34 studies that appeared in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2012 found that restricting processed foods with artificial colors and preservatives improved ADHD symptoms in some cases.
"We found that restriction diets did seem to provide a benefit, although the effect was smaller than that achieved by medication," says Joel Nigg, co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. "I think it re-opens the importance of conducting research on the role of diet and nutrition in children's behavioral development."
Even if the studies haven't yet shown a definitive food-behavior link, keeping kids away from sugar and processed foods is largely agreed to be a good idea. More whole grains and fewer sweets keep kids on a more even keel and help them avoid the dreaded sugar highs that leave children tired, unfocused and cranky. The US government has increased attention and resources on the school lunch diet to help combat the problem.
School lunches also play a pivotal role in the health of children.
At the beginning of the 2012/2013 school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program to offer fruits and vegetables daily, increase whole grain foods, offer fat-free and low-fat milk and reduce calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
"The new meal requirements mark the first major changes in school meals in more than a decade and will help raise a healthier generation of kids," says USDA undersecretary Kevin Concannon.