McDonald’s Wants to Teach Kids That It’s Healthy to Choose Fast Food
It’s been more than a decade since McDonald’s stopped offering to supersize orders of fries and soda—a decision that, according to the company line, had nothing to do with Super Size Me. In the 2004 documentary, director and star Morgan Spurlock spent a month eating only food from the chain, with no regard for calories or nutrition, and he always accepted the offer to supersize his order. The results weren’t pretty: Spurlock’s cholesterol levels rocketed, and his waistband ballooned.
Although we’ve gone through many cycles of trends and business models in the fast-food industry in the decade since—from McDonald’s selling its stake in Chipotle in 2006 to McDonald’s trying to be Chipotle in 2015—the chain seems not to have moved on: With its new 20-minute mini-doc, 540 Meals, McDonald’s has finally found a rebuttal.
The title comes from John Cisna’s 180 days eating only at McDonald’s—after which, the Iowa high school teacher says, he had lost 56 pounds. The experiment, which Cisna worked on with his students, earned him his 15 minutes of viral media fame and a new life as a paid brand ambassador for McDonald’s.
That relationship isn’t disclosed in 540 Meals, which goes to great lengths to remind viewers that its subject is not McDonald’s but “critical skills” and “proper choices.” Cisna explains that of course you would have a better health outcome if you ate a 2,000-calorie diet and kept track of the intake of certain nutrients. “The only difference between that and what we did was that we had a smaller grocery store,” he says in the film. “Our grocery store was McDonald’s.” It’s the brand’s version of the soda-industry contention that exercise, not diet, is the solution to the obesity crisis.
Yet, in the “Teachers Discussion Guide” that McDonald’s put together for 540 Meals, which The Lunch Tray’s Bettina Elias Siegel linked to in her write-up of the film, teachers are encouraged to use the video to balance out “current food and nutrition curriculum, such as plans that incorporate Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Super Size Me,’ to demonstrate how different choices contribute to different outcomes.”
Siegel does a thorough job of debunking the nutritional message of 540 Meals—in short, an overweight, middle-aged man has different dietary needs than a teenager—but the messaging of the video is more about the right to choose (to eat fast food) than about the nitty-gritty of nutrition.
“There’s nothing wrong with fast food. There’s nothing wrong with McDonald’s,” said Cisna, a paid brand ambassador. “And what’s really amazing, that people find unbelievable, is probably 95 percent of every day, I had french fries. I love french fries, and that was a great part of it,” he said.
Choice—that, in short, is McDonald’s decade-late rebuttal to Super Size Me. To judge by recent sales figures, consumers are choosing to dine elsewhere.