People Are Pissed About Mcdonald's Telling Kids How to Eat Healthy

November 11th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Kids are no strangers to the McDonald's marketing machine.

It is estimated that they're exposed to 254 of the company's TV commercials each year, and they are the beneficiaries of a number of programs woven into their school and home lives and burgeoning professional careers. 

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More recently, parents and nutrition-minded observers have been speaking out about a new program involving a 20-minute documentary screened at elementary schools, high schools, and colleges across the country. In the film, Iowa high school science teacher John Cisna tracks his own experiment to see if he can lose weight eating only McDonald's. After the self-shot footage he posted to YouTube racked up thousands of views, Cisna was retained as a paid McDonald's brand representative, and has been traveling to schools to speak about the 56 pounds he lost eating only McDonald's for 540 straight meals. 


Cisna had students choose daily meals for him capped at 2,000 calories, and implemented daily 45-minute exercise routines for half a year. But parents are concerned that "540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference," in which Cisna lauds the power of restraint and choice over actual diet, sends a mixed message to impulsive teenagers. They fear that students will end up essentially conflating French fry, burger, and ice cream consumption with a healthy diet and active weight loss, according to an online petition to stop the film screening in schools.

"The film is pitched to schools as 'educational' — it even comes with a 'Teachers Discussion Guide' prepared by McDonald's," the petition, which has over 70,000 supporters, reads. "[I]n reality it's little more than a heavily-branded infomercial for the fast food chain, one that seems cynically calculated to get kids to eat even more fast food than they do now." 

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It's easy to see where nutrition concerns bubble up. In the video, Cisna, backed by emotive music, flaunts the perks of his diet: "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 percent of every day, I had French fries." 

McDonald's didn't immediately respond to ATTN:'s request for comment, but a company representative told the Washington Post in October that the "goal of the program is simply to spark dialogue and discussion about choice [and] balance in our culture," and that McDonald's believes "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." 

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Other nutrition experts have pointed out that anyone who eats less than their daily caloric recommendation and works out (like Cisna) is likely to loose weight. But the message of "540 Meals" remains a sticking point in an era of rampant childhood obesity. Critics say that there's nothing wrong with McDonald's screening the film to older audiences, but that screening it in schools as an educational tool introduces inherently problematic assumptions about education, health, and the larger issue of normalizing fast-food consumption.

In recent years, Americans' concern for their health has encroached into their eating habits when it comes to fast food, with ostensibly better-for-you fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Shake Shack unseating old standbys like McDonald's and Burger King. Those trends have been helped along by both alarming obesity statistics, and take-downs of fast-food restaurants in popular culture. Morgan Spurlock's infamous 2004 "Super Size Me" documentary brought to light the ugly side of an all-McDonald's diet—something some, including Cisna, sought to disprove.

But for his part, Cisna doesn't seem to see the concern. 

"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," he told the Post. "If I had done this with Burger King, I'm sure Burger King would have brought me on too."