Student Well-Being

McDonald’s-Diet Teacher Ceases Nutrition Talks at Schools

By Madeline Will — May 16, 2016 3 min read
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A former teacher was visiting schools across the country on behalf of McDonald’s to promote healthy choices—but some educators were not loving it.

John Cisna, a former high school science teacher from Iowa who claimed to have lost almost 60 pounds eating only McDonald’s for six months in 2013 and 2014, stopped his visits to schools last fall, McDonald’s said last week. Cisna, who is a McDonald’s brand ambassador, will now only appear at “internal and local community events.”

For a year, Cisna visited middle and high schools to talk about his experience losing weight and lowering his cholesterol on a calorie-limited McDonald’s-only diet. The presentation included a 20-minute video documentary about how he shed the pounds through making informed choices (which, yes, included eating french fries most days).

Cisna’s school appearances came with an accompanying teaching guide, which recommends that teachers screen the video when the curriculum includes “Super Size Me,” a documentary in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food for 30 days—only in that documentary, the diet had a dramatically negative effect on Spurlock’s physical and psychological well-being. (McDonald’s teaching guide says Cisna’s video demonstrates “how different choices can contribute to different outcomes.”)

According to the Washington Post, McDonald’s said its schools program was intended to educate students about nutrition and good choices when fast food is a staple in many children’s diets. But some parents, teachers, and health experts were concerned that Cisna’s talks sent the message that Big Macs and french fries could be a regular part of a healthy diet.

“His presentation was about choice, not necessarily about eating McDonald’s. But there was a suggestion that if you look at what you’re eating, you could eat at McDonald’s for several days,” Susan Strutz, a family and consumer science teacher at a Wisconsin high school that hosted Cisna, told the Washington Post in the fall.

That Post article, which exposed how McDonald’s used its relationship with local schools and teachers’ associations to promote its message, was published just before McDonald’s quietly ended its educational outreach in schools. There was also a petition, started by an advocate for childhood food issues, which gathered nearly 90,000 signatures to end McDonald’s involvement in schools (calling it fast-food marketing).

Cisna had made his original McDonald’s experiment a class project on nutrition, allowing his students to pick out the food he’d eat. When the experiment first went viral, Cisna got a lot of positive feedback about how he taught his students to make careful decisions about what they eat, but he also received some pushback from those who said it was inappropriate to involve his students in his diet. A Slate editor wrote that this went beyond the appropriate student-teacher boundaries—"and teachers should be particularly careful about talking about dieting in the classroom given teens’ susceptibility to eating disorders and negative body image.”

For his part, Cisna said in an emailed statement to the Washington Post: “My focus has always been to encourage people to exercise and make more informed choices about food. Now I’m focused on and enjoying talking to employees and community groups about my story of choice and balance.”

Source: Image by Flickr user Mike Mozart, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.