Two years ago, a 280-pound teacher in Iowa decided he would eat only food from McDonald's for six months. But unlike in the infamous documentary "Super Size Me," the goal wasn't to see how much weight he would gain. It was to see how much he could lose.
For 540 straight meals, John Cisna says he kept his promise — a diet consisting of only McDonald's, adhering to certain calorie limits, and a routine marked by regular exercise. Half a year later, he emerged 56 pounds slimmer.
His story, which he first chronicled on YouTube, landed him appearances on major television networks. Ultimately, it led to him being hired by McDonald’s as a “brand ambassador,” just as Subway had done with Jared Fogle until the sandwich chain’s arrangement ended badly this year. And he now travels to pitch the fast food company to auditoriums of students around the country.
Cisna’s story has prompted a lively debate about whether it is appropriate for McDonald’s to use schools as a way to teach kids about healthy eating habits. Nutrition experts — as well as some teachers and parents — also question whether schools, which are letting the fast food company through their doors to market to kids, are allowing themselves to be co-opted.
Many McDonald’s restaurants provide financial support to underfunded educators and parent-teacher groups. At the same time, McDonald’s features Cisna in a 20-minute documentary it promotes to schools, along with lesson plans and guest speakers, through its nationwide network of franchisees.
Nutrition experts say the arrangement in an educational environment — at a time of intense concern about youth obesity — ends up sending a dangerous message about what makes for healthy eating to kids in an educational environment.
“It’s fine that McDonald’s discovered this guy, it’s fine that they wanted to feature him, but the moment they decided to put the documentary in front of middle schoolers they crossed a line,” said Bettina Elias Siegel, a food-law expert who sits on her Houston school’s health advisory board and was approached by a franchisee about showing the documentary. “To treat this as essential nutrition information is not right.”
McDonald’s and its defenders insist that the program is well intended, dealing with the reality that kids eat routinely at the fast food chain.
“The goal of the program is simply to spark dialogue and discussion about choice [and] balance in our culture,” said Christina Tyler, manager of brand storytelling and content for McDonald’s USA. “We believe there is an opportunity to shift how we talk about nutrition and wellbeing to better prepare students to make informed decisions about their health and diet throughout their life.”
The making of a McDonald's brand ambassador
Cisna was teaching science to middle and high schoolers in a small town in Iowa when he saw and did not like “Super Size Me,” which was released in 2004 and chronicled what happened to a man who ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month. He felt the film unfairly tarnished fast-food companies.
“It really isn’t very good science,” he wrote in his 2014 book.
Some time later, Cisna was having dinner with an acquaintance, a McDonald’s franchisee, when it occurred to him that some of his students “might get a kick out of seeing if someone could actually get healthy eating at McDonald’s,” he wrote.
Cisna began his experiment. At first his plan was to eat nothing but McDonald’s while limiting his daily intake to 2,000 calories for 90 days. But he ended up doing it for twice as long. At the end, he not only lost all that weight but he said his cholesterol level fell too.
He chronicled the experience in a short video published on YouTube with the title “Manages To Lose Weight And Lower Cholesterol With 90-DAY MC DONALDS DIET.” From there, his story caught fire. Local news outlets expressed interest. Then national programs followed suit, including the "Today" show and "Good Morning America."
Cisna's story was the sort of unanticipated blessing that helped boost Subway's sales in the early 2000s, when the chain teamed up with Jared Fogle, a resident of Indiana, who had lost more than 100 pounds by eating only Subway. (He recently pleaded guilty to charges related to child pornography and paying to engage in sexually explicit acts with minors.)
Finally, McDonald's swooped in, and the company has paid Cisna an undisclosed amount to travel to schools and other forums to speak about his experience.
"I don't decide where to go," Cisna said in an interview, adding that he's booked through December. "They set up interviews on television and talks at schools."
In late 2014, the burger giant began using his video as the basis for a 20-minute documentary, titled "540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference."
On camera, Cisna regularly jokes about his weight. He calls his experiment a trial to see if someone can be "better off" by only eating McDonald’s. With inspiring music in the background, he proclaims, “I had Big Macs, I had the Habanero, I had Quarter Pounders with Cheese, I had ice cream cones, I had sundaes. And what’s really amazing, that people find unbelievable, is probably 95% of every day, I had French fries.”
Finding its audience
McDonald’s has long tried to use its network of restaurants to win over kids, especially recently amid struggling U.S. sales. McDonald’s U.S. president Mike Andres told investors two years ago that franchise owners “have got to be in the schools.”
Company-owned restaurants have spent more than $2.5 million hosting McTeacher’s Night, for example, when parents and teachers serve hamburgers and fries to raise funds for schools. That number doesn’t include franchise locations, which make up roughly 90 percent of all locations.
McDonald’s documentary of Cisna’s story, which has been watched by nearly 80,000 people online, is also pitched to schools by dietitians who work with the company.
On Maryland PTA’s Web site, a letter urges parents to ask their schools to show the documentary to them so that they “have the most current and accurate information about McDonald’s.”
An accompanying teaching guide specifically recommends that teachers show the documentary when “Super Size Me” is part of the curriculums.
“They help teach the kids about choice, and how you can personalize what you want to eat,” Maryland PTA president Elizabeth Ysla Leight said. The lessons, she added, teach how students can modify their order at McDonald’s.
Leight said the information was featured after McDonald’s sponsored the group’s annual conference this year. McDonald’s is one of her group’s most consistent supporters, but she declined to say how much it receives. McDonald’s and other supporters give the PTA money for basic educational materials. “In order to do things like provide materials and put on conferences, we need the support,” she said.
Cisna’s Twitter account, which is followed by more than 36,000 people, is full of pictures of him speaking to middle and high school students.
In a Sept. 11 tweet, he is shown speaking at Baraboo High School in Baraboo, Wisc. There, 75 students packed into the library to watch the documentary.
“His presentation was about choice, not necessarily about eating McDonald’s,” said Susan Strutz, a family and consumer science teacher at Baraboo. “But there was a suggestion that if you look at what you’re eating, you could eat at McDonald’s for several days.”
Amanda Werfal, who teaches health at Maplewood Middle School in Wisconsin, also hosted Cisna last month. The presentation before three groups of seventh graders was arranged after a local McDonald’s franchisee reached out.
The meeting left Werfal uncertain.
“I think it would be more appropriate for high schoolers,” she said. “Middle schoolers tend to buy into everything they hear.”
Keeping McDonald's out of schools
Last week, Siegel, the food law blogger who wrote about the issue a few weeks ago on her site after also receiving a McDonald’s letter from a local franchisee, created a petition on Change.org, pleading with McDonald’s to stop the program. The petition has logged nearly 18,000 supporters.
"The translation of this video, of this campaign, is that you can eat McDonald's as much as you like," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. "And they're telling people to teach this to their kids? It leaves you breathless."
Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, said a critical flaw with the effort is that it’s based on the experience of a single overweight man.
“You don’t see major papers in the New England Journal of Medicine based off case reports, because case reports aren’t useful in clinical medicine,” Freedhoff said. “The only thing they offer is a suggestion that something might be worthy of further research.”
Nor, Nestle says, is the message the documentary offers as valuable as McDonald's is making it out to be. "Of course Cisna lost weight," she said. "He was overweight, and cut his calories significantly. He would have lost weight if he were only eating chocolate and watching his calories, too.”
Defenders argue that McDonald's is being treated unfairly.
"I can't see how kids would see that this message is telling them to eat more McDonald's or fast food, or how anyone would think that I'm promoting McDonald's," said Cisna. "If I had done this with Burger King, I'm sure Burger King would have brought me on too."
They also say that McDonald's is a staple for many people who don't have the money to eat elsewhere or time to cook at home.
Adam Kurth, who is the principal at Luxemburg-Casco High School, where Cisna recently spoke, said he thinks the message can be especially useful for students who live in a small town with few food options.
"We have 50 kids that walk to McDonald's for lunch every day," he said. "If that's the only option they have, I'd rather they learn how to make good choices when they go."
Nestle, who says that it's perfectly fine to eat fast food occasionally, laments that such a rushed attitude is exactly the kind of attitude that makes parents take their children to McDonald's several times a week.
"McDonald's is supporting PTA's and schools for one reason and only one reason: to keep the brand in front of kids and to deflect criticism," she said "On the basis of that argument, I'd say it's working pretty well."