Lindsey Shifley flew into a frenzy. She frantically tore through her cabinets, pantry and refrigerator.
"Everything must go," she remembers mumbling to herself, as she threw away animal crackers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, cereal-all of her family's favorites.
The Mundelein mom of three was on a mission.
The Shifleys' 6-year-old daughter Abbie was having trouble in school, reading below grade level and
showing signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Set off by an email from Abbie's first-grade teacher claiming "Abbie just doesn't care," Shifley went into action.
"Reality hit me in the face hard. I had a crazy urge to do something, anything to avoid that decision (about medication) and a food change seemed like the best place to start," she says.
Then came the purge.
Within hours, the Shifleys transformed their diet from nuggets and pizza to a whole foods diet free of processed foods and artificial preservatives. Gluten and dairy eventually became off-limits. This meant changing where Shifley shopped for groceries, cooking from scratch, rarely eating at restaurants and not getting school lunches.
Her kids whined. Her husband, Chris, thought she was crazy. And Shifley missed the ease of life with Uncrustables, chips and juice boxes.
By day 9, though, Abbie was showing vast improvement-reading on her own and enjoying it. She was paying attention in class and having less frequent meltdowns.
Shifley documented her story, which began last September, in a blog (themullies.blogspot.com), became a food ambassador for English chef Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and hosted a community-wide Food Revolution picnic to spread the word about healthy eating.
"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."
There are plenty of other "Abbies."
Increasingly more parents are thwarting medications and altering their children's diets in hopes of changing behavior and school performance.
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."
While most pediatricians and nutritionists will not definitively link food to behavior, experts agree that whole foods are best.
"There is evidence linking children's behavior and development to nutrient intake, but this is a hard thing to quantify," says Dr. Deborah Gulson, pediatrician with PediaTrust Lakeshore Pediatrics in Barrington.
Dr. Bridget Boyd, assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola Medical Center in Chicago, believes eating less processed food is best.
"Kids can have sugar highs and sugar lows. When you have a sugar high, you can have a lot of energy. Then there's a drop," Boyd says. "Eating a lot of processed food can lead to lots of highs and lows and end up with kids feeling overly tired. It's always better to make a change to help children function better."
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children eat three to five servings of fruit, three to five servings of vegetables, whole grains, fish and other lean proteins. Limiting fat, sugar and processed foods is suggested.
Not every parent has the time, money or desire to make sweeping food changes like Shifley. But even small changes help.
Soda and sweet drinks should not be consumed regularly, Gulson says, and snacks can consist of fruits and vegetables, instead of chips or pretzels.
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.
Still, each district differs greatly on what it serves. With her push, Diamond Lake School District resurrected its Wellness Committee to revamp its school food. Shifley wants more.
"My ideal school lunch menu would not include any artificial colors, preservatives, additives or artificial sweeteners. No fake foods."