When Colo-Nesco science teacher John Cisna and students, Savannah Deupree, Grant Tiarks and Tanner Clatt (all sophomores) began an experiment together at the beginning of the first semester, none of them had any idea what kind of a successful, high publicity ride they’d find at the end.
The story of Cisna’s dramatic three-month (Sept. 15-Dec. 15) weight loss, after eating a diet that consisted solely of McDonald’s restaurant food, created a buzz that went all the way from Colo to Des Moines to across the country and the world.
And it started so simply.
Cisna’s students were looking for semester projects to complete in biology class, and Cisna wondered if this group of three would like to use him as part of their project. He had viewed the 2004 documentary “Supersize Me,” where a man eats only at McDonalds for a period of time and watches his health deteriorate. Knowing it was more about how much you eat and how much exercise you get, Cisna wanted to try his own McDonald’s experiment.
“It bothered me that people bought that (what “Supersize Me” was showing),” Cisna said.
He proposed a new documentary/experiment idea to his students — that he would eat only McDonald’s food, but would do so with strict nutritional/calorie limitations and he would walk — an exercise that just about anyone, overweight or not, can do — about 45 minutes a day.
Deupree, Tiarks and Clatt jumped on the opportunity. They had indicated as a group that they wanted to do something in the health field, so their interest and Cisna’s interest collided into the perfect partnership.
The students say the work they did during the project consisted of a lot of planning and charting. “We all took turns planning his diet for each day,” Deupree said.
“We planned the sandwiches and foods he was going to eat, the calories and sugars, and charted everything as we planned it,” Tiarks said.
“And we figured out his walking,” Clatt added. “He’d walk a certain amount; at first he tried 40 minutes and then he gradually kept increasing it.”
Cisna also made friends with the owner of the local McDonald’s restaurants. Jim Baker is the owner/operator/franchisee of the McDonalds in Nevada, Ames, Story City, Carroll and Boone. Baker’s initial reaction to Cisna’s plan was that it was a good project. “I felt he would be successful with it.”
Baker agreed to pay for what Cisna was eating each day by having Cisna utilize his restaurants in Nevada and Ames. He did so to help Cisna do something that Baker believed would work. “I think any chance that we get to put our business or menu in a positive light, it was worth the investment. And I really felt (the importance of) his premise of choice. I’m a firm believer that whether or not it’s McDonald’s or eating at home, if you don’t have restraint, you’re going to have problems with your weight.”
Cisna’s students said they were convinced of the success of the project by halfway through. “Seeing the difference in him by halfway through was kind of cool,” said Deupree, noting that he’d lost at least 20 pounds at the mid-point.
Cissna said he wasn’t surprised about the weight loss, because prior to this experiment, he hadn’t been exercising or watching calories. What did surprise him was the large improvement in his blood work. He said his low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) had dropped from 173 to 113 by Dec. 15.
As students completed the project with their teacher and enjoyed seeing the results of how their menu planning and charting had worked, none of them predicted what would happen next. One call to a local TV station to see if they’d have interest in the story sparked a media frenzy that made Cisna’s before and after photos some of the most recognized images in the world.
“I liked how fast it spread and how famous it’s become,” said Tiarks. Clatt said he liked watching the exploding popularity the story was receiving through social media. “Kids from our school were all sharing the link (to the story) and the next day, it would be on another news station or show,” Clatt said. The students are most impressed at how the story reached “Fox News” and the “TODAY” show.
Clatt thought the publicity of the story was great for another reason. “It made people realize that there are smaller schools out there … where students are doing good things. No one had really heard of Colo-Nesco before, and now, everyone knows (about us).”
Cisna had to get used to going from nobody to somebody in basically a day’s time. Suddenly his email box was full and the phone was ringing, as he was asked to make a trip to the East Coast to talk about the success of his experiment on television. “I was in New York for just two days, but it felt like two weeks,” he said of the busy nature of making television appearances. He also spoke on a number of radio stations, some in other countries.
Now, Cisna is working on a book deal. “It will be the view from the inside out of this story,” he said. Not only about the experience of doing the diet consisting of only McDonald’s foods. “It will also be about how my life went from nobody to being known throughout the world. It will blow people away.” The book, Cisna said, is expected to be released on Amazon, before he goes back on the “TODAY” show on March 14.
The “TODAY” show was so interested in following Cisna on this journey, that they wanted to follow him as he continues the McDonald diet for another three months and adds in more kinds of exercise. “Now I’ve got a trainer and three times a week, she will start me with aerobic stuff, playing basketball a couple nights a week and then we’re going to get into some kettle balls and stuff, and I’m still taking my blood work,” he said.
For Baker, it’s all good. “To me, there’s a lot of prejudice about different things. People get their minds made up before the actually work through it. I think John is cutting through the prejudices about fast food or McDonald’s food, that it’s just junk. This (experiment) has helped to prove that what we provide is just as good in quality as what they get at home.”
Baker believes in the products that McDonald’s sells. “We have a quality menu, and people can eat healthy at McDonalds. We don’t expect people to eat there seven days a week, three meals a day, but there are things we have that are part of a well-balanced diet.” Baker said the McDonald’s website gives nutritional information on all McDonald’s foods, so people can utilize that as part of tracking their caloric and nutritional needs. Some of the healthier additions to the menu include items like parfaits, eggwhite delights, real fruit smoothies, salads with grilled chicken and oatmeal.
As Cisna walks between his classroom and his lab room, there’s an upbeat tempo to his gait. As of Jan. 13, he’s down 48 pounds. He’s looking healthy, feeling good and certainly enjoying the success of something he believed in from the beginning. As for whether or not he’s growing tired of eating McDonald’s food three meals a day, seven days a week, he stops and smiles. “I’m not really getting sick of it,” he said. “But other (non-McDonald’s) foods are starting to look nice. This wasn’t designed to be (a way you eat) long-term, but it is at least a pathway to start getting healthy.”