You may remember the story a few years ago about John Cisna, the Iowa science teacher that lost 37 pounds by eating exclusively McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Note: At the time of the original writing, the published information was for the first 60 days of John’s experiment. His experiment continued and some of these numbers are underestimated from his final result. We will highlight that all in a future article.) John went from 279 pounds down to 242 while also dropping his total cholesterol levels from 249 (LDL 173) to 170 (LDL 113) all while eating McDonald’s instead of going on some evil restrictive diet that everyone hates. I know. It sounds made up, but it’s true. People shared this story for weeks on end because it broke with the norms and eating McDonald’s sounds way more enjoyable than grilled tofu three times a week. However, blind sharing of this story was reckless without some proper perspective.
First, let me be the one asshole on the internet that points out the negative side. At the end of the experiment, John wasn’t the beacon of good health yet, though he was getting there. (Editorial Note: John continued healthy lifestyle habits as highlighted in his book From Viral to Virile and did become quite a good example of a healthy lifestyle. We spoke with John Cisna and will be doing a followup article in the future.) He made great progress while eating fast food, and I don’t want to discredit that to any extent. Unfortunately, his 60 day McDonald’s diet didn’t give him a satisfactory bill of health yet. Although his Total Cholesterol levels dropped into a good range, his LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) levels being at 113 is still a little higher than it should be. Update: I do have to acknowledge that his LDL dropped by over a third during his experiment and that’s a VERY good outcome. His HDL after 60 days was at 57, and while that’s typically a little above average, it does mean that he dropped his Cholesterol ratio from 3.7 to 1 to now being 2.98 to 1. Ideally this ratio should be around 3.5 to 1 which means his McDonald’s diet probably didn’t give him a good balance of fats and cholesterols. Then you have the fact that his BMI (assuming he’s about 5’10”) finished at 34.7 which puts him in the obese range by all health standards. This puts him at an increased risk for health complications such as stroke, hypertension, Diabetes, gallstones, coronary artery disease, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances, metabolic syndromes, cancer, joint pains, etc. John Cisna made great strides towards being a healthier him by eating McDonald’s for 60 days, but let’s not pretend that McDonald’s made him fully healthy in his 60 day experiment.
Now, let’s see talk about WHY John’s unusual diet worked for him.
John did a great job of portion control. He has been very vocal on this front and I’m incredible thankful to him for doing that. He preplanned his days so that he would be hitting 2,000 Calories per government guidelines. He also did his best to have a balanced diet that lined up with the USDA Guidelines given out on www.myplate.gov so he didn’t just eat fats or just had carbs. When structuring his day, he watched 15 different nutrients (Carbohydrates, Protein, Fat, Cholesterol, etc) to keep within USDA guidelines. The nutrient he never was able to control was sodium. That one always came in at 160%+ recommended daily amounts which would be true for any processed foods.
Based on the Harris-Benedict equation, when John started his “diet” his Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), the amount of calories needed just to maintain current weight, was at 2,353 calories (assuming he’s about 5’10” and about 50 years old). That means his non-restrictive diet restricted his daily calorie intake by 15% which is a fairly aggressive restriction in reality. Typically, people aim for a 10-15% reduction of TDEE when dieting.
Portion control and balance was the majority of what he accomplished. [SPOILER ALERT] Hell, portion control is almost always the biggest factor in weight loss success.
John also started an exercise program. Although the news reports underplay the role exercise had, that change did increase his TDEE which in turn increased the caloric deficit he was getting. He started walking 45 minutes each day (We highlighted the value simply walking to INCREASE NEAT can do it this article). By his own account, starting to walk for 45 minutes was such a challenge that it felt like he was going to die (thankfully he did not). One of my favorite “motivational” workout quotes I know (and I think I found it on Todd Bumgardner’s Facebook page) is “If it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you.” Feeling like dying is definitely a challenge, so we should expect this exercise program to help make some changes for John.
Something most fitness professionals I’ve met in person won’t tell you that John did correctly was he ate ice cream. It wasn’t daily, and it wasn’t even something you’d call frequently or consistently, but he ate ice cream when he wanted it. In the same way, I think him eating McDonald’s may have been part of his success as well. These were foods that he could enjoy eating. His meal plan wasn’t a struggle or a punishment for him. This allowed him to stay consistent and on target for his goal. Because he never felt like he was depriving himself, he never felt the need to fall off the wagon and go for a 3000 calorie day. He made his diet mentally easy on himself, and it worked. People too often want to add so many restrictions, eating as little as 800 calories a day and taking away foods they enjoy, that they eventually break down and fail. All of the time.
Those were the things John did right. There are two major things that John could do better on.
Strength Training. Walking was a surprise to John’s body and forced it to make the appropriate changes to survive and thrive for future walks. But unfortunately, walking really shouldn’t be taxing after a couple of weeks. Like I mentioned earlier, if it doesn’t challenge you then it doesn’t change you. Now that John is beyond the walking phase (unless he wants to add in 3-4 hour marathon walks), he has to move on to something better. And there really is nothing better than Strength training for accomplishing health and fitness goals (with the obvious exceptions of endurance sports like running or cycling in which strength training adds primarily secondary and tertiary benefits). Strength training has a strong cardiovascular benefit, lowers blood pressure, builds muscles mass, increases caloric expenditure, drives up metabolic rates, improves activities of daily living, can promote flexibility and is helpful in improving body composition (the ratio of fat mass to lean body mass). With an appropriately designed strength training routine, there’s really no benefit that you don’t get. (If you know of a benefit that you cannot get through strength training that you can get through other modes of training, please comment below and provide a citation.)
EDITORIAL NOTE: Between the original writing of this article in 2014 and the republication in 2019, I’ve been privileged to actually speak with John Cisna, and he reports he did begin a strength training routine that he enjoyed thoroughly. He beamed as he reported how good he felt from the strength he gained.
I would recommend better food. Surprising! Although Macronutrients (Protein, Fats, Carbohydrates) are going to be most responsible for the effects seen on the scale, the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) will dictate many more health markers and physiological functions. A quick glance through McDonald’s nutritional information shows that Vitamin A barely exists in their foods. Unlisted is the Vitamin-B complex, Vitamin D, Vitamin K, Magnesium, Chromium, etc., etc. In addition, as hard as John tried, there was no way to keep Sodium in recommended amounts and he consistently ate almost double daily allotments (which is bad for your heart). By eating better foods, John could be getting these vitamins and minerals and in better quantities. By shopping around the outside sections of the grocery store (Produce, Dairy, Breads, Meats… not the processed box foods found in the inside aisles), you get a healthier mix of micronutrients.
So what are some big lessons you should learn from John Cisna? Well..
- Keep portions under control
- Total Daily calorie intake, no matter where those calories come from, will affect your long-term weight. Even if those calories come from McDonald’s.
- Exercise (but make sure to hit the weights, too!)
- Increasing movement is a great way to increase energy expenditure and offset the calories you’re eating.
- Enjoy your food
- If dieting feels like punishment, you’re more likely to quit and lose all your results (plus gain some extra weight back!!)
- Don’t deprive yourself with insane food restrictions or starvation diets.
Wow. Weightloss is a whole lot more simple than people make it seem, isn’t it?