This has come across my attention a few times this week, and the more I see it the more frustrating this topic becomes. Here is the punchline: a severely obese sedentary person goes on a 2000 calorie a day eating regiment, adds 45 minutes of walking exercise to his daily lifestyle which leads to him losing 37 pounds and improving his cholesterol. That doesn’t sound radical does it? The punchline we see however is, “Man Loses 35 Pounds Eating McDonalds” as some big FU saying McDonald’s food is now healthy for you. Is it? Let’s find out.
You can find the original news broadcast and a writeup like the one in the UK Mail to cover the details of the story. Their punchline is that unlike Morgan Spurlock’s experience eating nothing but McDonald’s food, you can lose weight eating McDonald’s. They then cut to the teacher, John Cisna, stating that it’s not all salads and oatmeal but all the food on the menu and you can do it too! We will get back to that in a moment. What’s the lesson to the poor soul who is obviously looking to lose weight and get healthy in our modern society? Could it be the same sort of message smokers in the 1960s took from the doctor’s advocating their favorite cigarettes? “Why yes, I can now eat McDonald’s with reckless abandon again!” I know that sounds condescending, but the American public’s track record on this is incredibly dismal. When the low-fat crazy was all the rave we were presented with low fat options like Twizzlers, Skittles and Snackwell’s, missing from that were all the fruits and vegetables that was supposed to be the core of a low fat diet. When Atkins became the craze, it was all about the cheese and meat, again not looking at the bigger picture of cutting out refined foods and not obsessing about “low fat.” It is human nature to want to take the easy road, and that’s why the marketing engines are as effective as they are.
What about this teacher’s case however? First, is his message matching the reality? If you get the superficial coverage it’s about “you can eat regular McDonald’s food and still be healthy.” I won’t comment on equating a healthy weight with being healthy, but let’s just go with that premise for a moment. “It’s not just salads, you can eat things like Big Mac’s and Sundae’s too,” he states. The rules of his program were as follows: his students constructed his food plan using the online planning calculator to make sure he was eating about 2000 calories a day while still getting close to the recommended balance of protein, carbs and fat. That way his students wouldn’t give him a day of eating five sundaes. What did that end up looking like for him?
He provides a little insight into the plan itself. Breakfast was always two Egg White Delight McMuffins (think egg whites, canadian bacon and low fat cheese on a whole wheat English Muffin), a bowl of oatmeal and a skim milk. Overall that breakfast isn’t too bad, especially by McDonald’s standards. Lunch was always a salad of some sort. Dinner was a standard menu item, with fries and maybe an ice cream or a sundae if it didn’t exceed 2000 calories. Now that is certainly not “just salads” and “regular foods too” but two thirds of his daily food intake was salad and healthy items. These healthy items are things that were never even conceived of being on the menu at McDonald’s before the Super Size Me movie that they, or the gleeful posters, revile. The closest you came to that before said movie were salads that dressing so laden with fat that you actually came out better ordering the Big Mac than the salad! So far his message is a bit misleading, but he actually addressing that in his conclusion by saying, “It’s what you choose not McDonald’s itself.” So let’s address some fallacies of his argument.
First, McDonald’s doesn’t incentive price the healthy items they incentive price their crap items. Look at their Dollar Menu(TM). On the lunch/dinner menu the only item that is as reasonable, nutrition wise, as his breakfast and lunch items is the side salad. For breakfast the only thing that would be in the same category is the coffee. The rest of the menu is the crap stuff he left to his “indulgence” meal at dinner. Considering many people are there for convenience and the perception of low price, they are going to go for the Dollar Menu items, yet there are none of the healthy options on there. Second, while McDonald’s dutifully makes sure these healthy choice items fit the USDA recommendations for macronutrients and cholesterol, they don’t do that with the rest of the menu. They also don’t do that for the micronutrients as well, but at least there they are partially saved by using fortified processed foods. Plus, everything is relative. This guy admits that he wasn’t tracking what he was eating before the experiment. Based on his weight I’d say he was probably eating upwards of 3000 calories a day. He therefore cut his calories by a third and cleaned up at least one (and most likely two) of his meals. That’s like a three pack a day smoker saying cutting back to one pack a day is healthy. It’s certainly healthier, but healthy not so much. Lastly, he also added exercise to his lifestyle, in the form of a regiment of 45 minutes a day of walking. It’s not just what you are eating and what you are doing. So again, kudos for him for getting healthier, but let’s not confuse that with healthy.
I applaud him for losing 37 pounds. I applaud him for adding exercise to his lifestyle. I applaud him for improving his cholesterol numbers to the point that they are in the healthy range. I think it is a stretch to say that he did it by eating “regular food” at McDonald’s when most of what he was eating was on the healthy menu. Even if we go with that premise, is he “eating healthy” at McDonald’s. That answer is a bit murkier.
I decided to look at it by building up a week of his diet. Breakfast was easy as it was two Egg White Delights, oatmeal and a skim milk. Lunch was a little harder, but McDonald’s doesn’t have a huge variety of salads. I therefore rotated through the salads, first with grilled chicken, then with the crispy friend chicken. Dinners were somewhat similar. The one constant was the medium french fries. The sandwiches I rotated through but I never went to something like a Double Quarter Pounder or something to that effect. On days where there was room for the calories, he got either an ice cream cone or a sundae. Again, this looks quite different from your typical McDonald’s eater, but he was holding true to eating some crap food at dinner. The question becomes, is it healthy?
Macro-nutrient wise things aren’t going completely wrong. We are hitting just over 2000 calories a day, which will create a pretty good net calorie deficit for someone of this guy’s size. It’s a bit high in fat (about 122% over recommended levels) a bit higher in saturated fat (almost 150% recommended levels) but it’s actually lower in recommended total cholesterol levels (225 instead of 300). The macronutrient breakdown (carbs/fat/protein) is pretty high in carbs but he’s still getting a reasonable level of protein. For a weight of 250 pounds he would want at least 125 grams of protein. This is a little below that, but not a complete tragedy. Fiber is also pretty spot on. Okay, so far so good. It’s when we look at the micronutrients that things start going a bit awry.
The good news is that most of the food made at McDonald’s is either directly fortified or uses fortified ingredients. This makes it so that even though you aren’t getting any real amount of fruit or vegetables you still get some decent micronutrients. Even considering that however the picture is pretty weak in many areas. They fortify the oatmeal so at least the Vitamin C level is up to a decent level, otherwise that would be on the floor. The levels of Vitamin D are low, but that’s common for many diets. Vitamin E, Copper, Folate, Iron and Magnesium are all well below the RDA levels, unfortunately. The rest are at or above these levels, unfortunately including sodium which came in at more than 150% above recommended levels. What that means overall is that this diet over long periods of time will cause nutrient deficiencies.
So, nutrition wise this isn’t a total disaster but we are definitely looking at some pretty good sized holes in the diet. Sadly, based on what the teacher said, this is actually still healthier than what his diet was before the program, and at least now he’s also getting some exercise. That said, most of the micronutrients are coming not from whole foods, fruits and vegetables but from fortification. The closest thing you get to vegetables in this entire meal is the lettuce used in the salads and on the sandwiches, or if we want to stretch credulity beyond the breaking point we could also throw in the ketchup too. There are a few pieces of chopped apple and craisins in his oatmeal, but this still doesn’t add up to even one serving of fruit. The bottom line is that a diet devoid of fruits and vegetables is not healthy for you. This diet is one of them. A diet consisting mostly of heavily processed foods is not healthy for you. That would be this diet as well.
Can you lose weight on this diet? Obviously, this guy did. You could also lose weight on a twinkie diet or cabbage soup diet. That doesn’t mean that it’s the right way to go. Can you classify this diet as healthy? In absolute terms, absolutely not. As stated above, a diet devoid of fruits, vegetables and whole foods and consisting of highly processed foods isn’t healthy. A diet short on essential nutrients can’t be healthy, and this diet isn’t horrible in that regard but it can use a lot of improvement. Can you classify it as healthier? Actually, yes you could. If your diet is already all processed foods and looks more like the dinners in this diet but for every meal and snack, then eating this way is a far better improvement than your status quo. Would I recommend it? If you can’t bring yourself all the way to eating fruits and vegetables and whole foods for most of your meals, then yes by all means please switch to this sort of fast food diet over your current fast food diet. Please also add the exercise that he did as well. You are definitely doing yourself a favor, but please don’t confuse that with thinking there isn’t room for improvement.
Lastly, the thing I think is most troubling to me is that this is seen as some big FU to Morgan Spurlock and his original documentary. None of the menu options that occupied two thirds of this guy’s meals would even be available today if it wasn’t for the public outcry as a result of that movie. At the time of that movie the present day medium fries were the small fries, so even if he order the exact same “indulgence” meal he would have gotten another few hundred calories of french fries alone. I’m glad that McDonald’s is responding to public demand by introducing better quality foods to their menu. They could go one step more and add those to their Dollar Menus to actually incentivize people to buy them like they do the totally garbage foods, but that’s probably a bridge too far. Even with this progress, let’s not forget that these meals while still healthier still aren’t something that should be considered staple elements of a healthy diet. These are lesser of evil options at best, and you can thank the guy you are trying to demonize (Spurlock) for waking up the public so they could cattle prod McDonald’s in the ass to the point where this at least is an option.