Not until you see all the McDonald's food John Cisna ate in a given day, every day for six months, does it hit you: This man lost 60 pounds eating like this.
The staff at the McDonald's on Northlake Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens trotted out the dishes for a typical day and laid them out before him. Two egg white breakfast sandwiches, oatmeal and milk for breakfast. A bacon ranch chicken salad, a yogurt parfait and two bags of apples for lunch. A cheeseburger meal with small fries and an unsweetened ice tea for dinner.
Yes, fries. Yes, a burger.
“It’s a lot of food, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically.
It’s obviously a lot of food. The real question is: Is it good for you?
That’s the question Cisna, an Iowa science teacher, set out to answer as a human guinea pig in 2013.
Three sophomores in his science class started with a hypothesis for their semester-long project: Is it possible to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 90 days straight and be healthier for it? The 90 days soon became 180. The students designed the menu, and Cisna volunteered to eat nothing but McDonald’s within very strict nutritional guidelines.
That’s 540 straight meals. No cheat days. No turkey on Thanksgiving. Just items that the students chose for him from the McDonald’s menu, staying at or below 2,000 calories and meeting the FDA’s daily recommendations on as many as 15 different categories such as vitamins C and D, fiber, sugar and calories from fat.
“I figured it couldn’t work,” said Zoee Risdal, a student in that science class, who is now a senior.
But it did. Call it the McDonald’s paradox.
Cisna lost 60 pounds. His cholesterol dropped from 249 to 170, as did several other risk factors.
McDonald’s corporate learned about his weight loss and now they pay Cisna to travel around the country speaking to high schools and community groups about his adventure. He was in Palm Beach County last month, where he spoke to Lake Worth High seniors about making good choices with food.
“I talk about the importance of choice. It’s a process of getting people to think for themselves,” Cisna said. “This is what education is about: making kids think.”
Cisna wants people to consider everything they put in their bodies. He, for one, had lost track.
Cisna grew up a baseball player in Des Moines, just 45 minutes south of the school where his students ran his experiment, and earned a scholarship to Iowa Sate. He was a jock, fit, stout but never overweight.
But by age 54 (he’s 56 now), his weight had ballooned to 280 pounds with a 51-inch waist. He was a binge eater who could devour a whole pizza after a long day of work. Or a 24-ounce ribeye at dinner. A family-size pack of potato chips in front of the television.
“I was a mess,” he said. “I was a heart attack waiting to happen.”
Then he hatched the idea with his students at Colo-Nesco High, a school of 185 students ranging from the seventh to 12th grades. He says he chose McDonald’s because they serve breakfast and a variety of food throughout the day. Plus, they post all their nutritional information in a “menu builder” online.
His students came up with 56 different menus for him. He ate 108 of McDonald’s 133 items. And they also planned 45 minutes of walking every day.
Still, his wife of 36 years and his three daughter were scared for him.
“This is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in your life,” his oldest told him, and then she cried.
“The only one who backed me on this idea was my doctor,” Cisna said.
He approached a friend who owned a local McDonald’s franchise and asked him if he would sponsor the project. The friend said yes and donated all the food for the experiment. Because the McDonald’s diet isn’t cheap.
It would have cost him about $22 a day, more than $150 a week.
“Everyone thinks you can eat cheaper going out. No way,” he said. “You can buy a lot of groceries for $150 a week.”
And it’s also not a diet he endorses. Don’t call this another Subway Diet, Cisna says. He won’t even give out his full 180-day menu.
It was far from perfect. He and his students never managed to create a menu for him that kept the sodium in check. They wanted to target 2,500 mg or less. They never got under 3,800.
“I don’t want people to be on a fast-food diet only — that’s just stupid,” he said. “This was an experiment.”
But he stuck to it for science. He says he never snacked at home, even when it meant having a Filet-o-Fish and fries on Thanksgiving because touching the turkey and stuffing would have invalidated his students’ experiment. He choked down Chicken McNuggets, even though he hated them.
“I would have been cheating (the students),” he said.
Some groups have accused McDonald’s of using Cisna to pitch fast food to high school students. But the Palm Beach County school district said Cisna’s message was about more than running for the golden arches.
“His point was you can make good choices whether you go to the grocery store or wherever you go,” said Lake Worth assistant principal James Cooper, who sat in on Cisna’s lecture.
Cisna’s best evidence is the man he’s become — choosing a balanced diet after the experiment ended.
Today, he’s 227 pounds with a 36-inch waist. His first regular meal was salmon and steamed vegetables at a hometown restaurant with his family.
“I took my first bite of salmon and my mouth started uncontrollably watering,” he said.
He bikes or lifts weights daily, even as he travels about 17 days out of every month carrying his message around the country. He even sneaks in an occasional scotch (which he knows has 40 calories a serving) at the hotel bar.
When a couple of women seated next to him at a local McDonald’s overheard his story, he was proud to turn to his side and show his flat stomach. He took a selfie and signed a photo of his before-and-after picture.
“It’s almost like I’ve got a new body, a new physiology,” he said.
And he’s loving it.