When we began eating healthier as a family more than 9 months ago, one of the first things I ditched from our diets was McDonald's and food from other, similar fast food chains. Although we had always done a fairly good job of ordering the lower-calorie, non-fried food menu items, and letting the kids order the nuggets with apple slices instead of fries, the long list of food additives, preservatives, and otherwise overly processed food materials, was in stark misalignment with our goal to add more whole foods to our diet - that is, foods which were non-processed or as minimally processed as possible. Adding in more organic, humanely and sustainably raised food items was on our conscious as well. We figured that even though we ordered some of the "healthier" food items off the menu, our bodies and our environment would benefit from the elimination of fast food.
But a high school science teacher from Iowa recently completed a very rough science experiment, where he lost almost 40 pounds by eating McDonald's morning, noon, and night for 90 days. Makes for quite the compelling headline, doesn't it?
Dig deeper though, and you'll see that John Cisna not only strictly limited his daily caloric intake to 2,000 a day, but he also began walking 45 minutes every day. Previously, he had registered in with a body mass index (BMI) of 38, which is considered obese, and had performed zero physical exercise.
Not only did Cisna lose 37 pounds, but his cholesterol levels went down, from 249 to 170. At first glance, it would seem that you could eat McDonald's every day, and as long as you restricted your portions, you could lose weight and become even more healthy, right?
But Cisna's experiment not only contains a couple of glaring flaws, but the end result sends a frighteningly disturbing message, leading people to easily justify their daily McDonald's fix, as long as they were mindful of their "choices."
As a science teacher, Cisna should know that his experiment includes one major flaw: the lack of a control subject. Not only did he reduce his calories, but he also increased his physical activity, therefore he changed too many relegating factors at once, leaving us to wonder what truly caused the weight loss - the food or the exercise. But because this is more of an experiment, rather than a hard-core science study, I'll give him a pass.
The headline could read the same if you replace any food item or restaurant chain with McDonald's, and you would get the same weight loss results because when you lower your calories and increase your movement, you are guaranteed to lose weight. You could eat nothing but 2,000 calories worth of popcorn all day, every day, and you would still lose weight. This is not rocket science but basic mathematics.
Furthermore, as registered dietician and Today contributor Joy Bauer points out, when one limits his or her calories to lose weight and increases physical activity, lower cholesterol levels are an almost guaranteed result, no matter what you're actually eating. Therefore Cisna's lower cholesterol results may seem like a big win for fast food, and it is a big health-win for Cisna himself, the positive results were the workings of basic bodily functions, not that of wonderfully nutritious food from McDonald's.
And when considering health, I would also be interested in seeing Mr. Cisna's blood pressure and blood sugar results, as all fast food menu items contain abnormally high levels of sodium and sugar, which can raise blood pressure and decrease insulin resistance, leading to Type 2 diabetes and a possible heart attack.
The bottom line: yes, he lost weight, and yes, his cholesterol went down, but both results were a natural given, no matter what type of food he was consuming. But at what long-term consequence to his health, and his body's ability to not only function better, but feel better, did the weight loss come by?
While Cisna claims, "It's our choices that make us fat, not McDonald's," I ask if McDonald's can not only make you lose weight, but also improve your overall health?
This experiment has pushed many to state it's not about what you eat, but how much, and even Joy Bauer stated it's not about where you eat, but what you eat. However, I would argue it's about all three - it's about what you eat, where you eat, and how much you eat.
Related: What NOT to eat at 12 top fast food joints
Yes, to limiting calories if you're overweight or obese, yes to eating more health-conscious foods, and yes to eating at home or at restaurants that don't make it a habit of lacing their food with preservatives, additives and chemicals, which sadly, fast food chains do quite vigorously.
Download the ingredient list of all the McDonald's menu items, and you'll see that Chicken Nuggets contain both TBHQ and dimethylpolysiloxane, food additives and preservatives that are not only mysterious and hard to pronounce, but are also used to make silly putty and are petroleum based.
Meat items contain sodium nitrite, which is considered hazardous and has been associated with colorectal cancer, according to the peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Many menu items, too many to count, contain high fructose corn syrup, which has a long list of health concerns, one of them being its ability to travel and settle directly in your liver, which can lead to fatty liver, which affects 90 million Americans.
Other disturbing and weird ingredients found in a typical McDonald's menu item include cellulose, which is essentially wood pulp and is used to keep shredded cheese separated. While not necessarily damaging to your health, it's still strange. Oh, and of course, feathers and hair particles.
The bottom line, your body's immune system is actually hampered in its ability to fight off infection with the consumption of too much processed and sugar-laden food. Digestive problems are also likely, as your body works overtime to try and process all of those strange ingredients, many of which your body doesn't even recognize. And while Cisna's students may have planned menus for the teacher that met the USDA's daily requirements, they did not take overall nutrition into account. Yet another peer-reviewed study proved that fast food was poor in nutrient quality, with low levels of fiber, vitamin A and iron, and high levels of sugar and sodium.
The alarming problem I see with this "experiment" is that those who love the convenience, taste, and price of fast food will just pay attention to the catchy headline, and use these results as further justification to continue eating fast food, and feeding it to their children.
Will the other factors of his increase in physical activity and strict calorie restriction be considered? Will people see the bigger picture and consider possible long-term health complications associated with a diet heavy in fast food? If this experiment was to show how a person could still lose weight if they ate sensibly and consumed mostly homemade meals, with the occasional fast-food indulgence, I'd find no fault. But this extreme type of experiment makes headlines and can do more harm than good by discounting claims that fast food is bad for you. Essentially, on the surface, the results look sparkly and shiny, but once you dig deeper, you see there's a much bigger, scarier issue to consider. And does this type of experiment further solidify our culture's obsession with dieting and the inaccurate notion that it's all about counting calories and points and numbers, ignoring that fact that overall health takes all things into consideration, including exercise, quality and quantity of diet, and even mental attitude?
In the end, I'm thrilled John Cisna lost weight, considering complications with obesity are numerous and alarming. However, is eating McDonald's the right road to take, to living a healthier, longer life? It's not just my instincts, or my aversion to "pink slime" that has me saying no, but tons of solid scientific research also confirms that fast food is not the answer to long-term overall health, vitality and energy. For Mr. Cisna's next experiment, I'd challenge him to up the ante and ditch the fast food, consuming a 2,000 calorie diet of nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, whole grains and organic meats and cheeses, free of antibiotics. My guess would be, he'd not only continue to lose weight, but would feel like a whole new man. In fact, I'd be willing to bet on it.
Photo Source: Thinkstock/Justin Sullivan
-By Andrea Howe