Call it the McDonald's 30-day challenge.
Nyree Dardarian, a licensed dietitian and director of the Center for Nutrition and Performance at Drexel University, decided to prove a point to her students: You can eat healthy at a fast-food restaurant even if you do it for 30 days in a row.
That's McBreakfast, McLunch and McDinner for a month.
Ever since the 2004 Academy Award-nominated documentary Super Size Me, the questions about fast-food diets she gets from just about everyone have been a thorn in Dardarian's side.
"We have to learn how to live with [fast food] because it is here to stay," said Dardarian, 44. It isn't where people eat so much as what they eat and the portion sizes, she said.
In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock set out to explore the fast-food industry's role in the obesity epidemic. He ate three meals a day for a month at McDonald's, trying everything on the menu at least once. When he was asked whether he wanted to "super size" an item, he did. His weight shot up about 25 pounds, along with his cholesterol level. His liver accumulated fat, he had heart palpitations. He suffered from mood swings, lost his sex drive, and threw up in a parking lot.
Dardarian's approach was different. There would be no super sizing. She was going to carefully choose her meals and stay within daily nutritional guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Daily calorie guidelines range from 1,800 to 2,400 calories for adult women ages 18 to 60, and 2,200 to 3,200 calories for adult men of the same age.
Because life can sometimes be complicated, Dardarian aimed for 1,400 calories a day from the fast-food giant, leaving 200 flexible non-McDonald's calories she could use each day or save for another day.
To prepare for the challenge, the Delaware County mother of three kept a daily food log and recorded her activity level for the month of June. She had her blood work done, measured her body fat, and recorded her weight for comparison after she was done at the end of July.
She started July 1 with a fruit and yogurt parfait for breakfast (150 calories, according to the company website), an Egg McMuffin (300 calories) with a small fry for lunch (230 calories), and a Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad (450 calories) and with her optional calories, six pieces of a spicy sushi tuna roll (260 calories) that were not from McDonald's for dinner. She rounded out the day with a McDonald's vanilla cone (170 calories) for dessert. The total came to 1,560 calories.
As time went by, Dardarian developed a pattern.
"Typically, I would eat a burger (250 calories for a small one without cheese) for lunch or dinner," Dardarian said. The other meal would be a salad. Breakfast would alternate between oatmeal with a latte or an Egg McMuffin. She kept extra oatmeal and yogurt parfaits in her refrigerator in case she got hungry at night.
Boredom with the meal choices was her biggest challenge.
"Dear McDonald's diary, I just want bread, without meat. Hungry Nyree. I'm so bored with this food. I need something crunchy. Tried to avoid fries today, still ended up with them. Today's lunch, mango smoothie & fries. Luckily I still love the fruit and yogurt parfait. And for the record, no plain bagels at this McDonald's," she wrote on July 12 on the Instagram page she kept for the trial.
There were foods on the McDonald's menu that Dardarian did not let pass her lips, including the double cheeseburger (440 calories); the double quarter pounder with cheese (770 calories), the big breakfast with hotcakes (1,350) and the McFlurry (510 for the Oreo flavor).
"I never ordered a double of anything," she said, explaining that having two burgers results in too much high-fat protein for one meal.
"It's called a double for a reason. It's twice as much meat and fat," Dardarian said.
To create a healthier Big Mac, Dardarian took out the middle piece of bun and one of the patties to create a "Mini Mac" that had all the flavor but not all the carbs, calories and fat. The staff at her local McDonald's also suggested ordering a regular hamburger with special sauce as a healthier option but with the same taste as the Big Mac.
"They know all the tricks," she said.
To have some fun, she set up a rating system by using a fries emoji to critique the quality of food, service and cleanliness of area McDonald's restaurants.
The McDonald's in Chestnut Hill scored a four-fry rating. The restaurants at 1401 Arch St. in Philadelphia and Cottman Avenue received only one fry.
"You do have to pick and choose your McDonald's," she said.
She also wanted to destigmatize eating fast food.
"We are not going to change the foods available at McDonald's, but you can change the perspective and the experience while there," she said. Eating should be a social experience. Feeling guilty about the food choice, eating alone in the car, and hiding the wrapper takes away from the community and socialization that comes with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, she said.
She suggests treating the visit much like you would at trip to a special or expensive restaurant.
"Take a seat, take a friend, pay attention to your food, pay attention to your friend," Dardarian posted on Instagram. "The most important in any system is community and socialization."
She celebrated her last meal — a McChicken sandwich, one of her favorites — with her family.
"We were there for an hour and we felt good about it," she said.
At the end of one month, Dardarian's body composition showed little change.
Her weight went up a pound, but small fluctuations aren't unusual for her. Her body mass index, BMI, is still in the healthy range for her 5-foot-six-inch height, she said.
Her blood work also showed little change, unlike Spurlock of Super Size Me fame — a testament to her healthy food choices.
"All the values were within normal levels," she said.
Dardarian used the free My Fitness Pal app to record her meals and exercise for both June, when she was eating a regular diet, and July, the challenge period. Her intake of carbohydrates, protein and fat were remarkably consistent, though her level of potassium did drop.
"Potassium is an indicator of fresh fruits and vegetables, which I was struggling to get" at McDonald's, she said.
Crunchy foods and whole grains were also in short supply.
"I wouldn't suggest this for anybody," she said. "I wouldn't suggest eating anywhere for 30 days straight."
For her first post-McDonald's meal she chose sushi and fruit.
"I needed some fish and I needed it to be fresh," she said. "I needed to eat watermelon. I was craving it so badly."
Tips for healthy eating at fast-food restaurants
Look at the calories — they are posted at the restaurants and online — and stay within daily USDA guidelines.
Don't go for the extra value or biggie meal. Order a la carte.
Just order a sandwich and water. Avoid sugary sodas and fruit drinks.
Skip the fries and opt for the side salad. Burger King's garden side is 60 calories (get the fat-free dressing) vs. 380 for fries).
Order single burger patties, not doubles.
Let kids order the children's meal, but seek out such options as apple slices and milk over fries and soda.
Choose a hamburger over chicken nuggets, which are breaded and deep fried. Look for grilled chicken sandwiches. At Wendy's, for instance, you'll save 140 calories that way.
Let kids order a salad or the hotcakes from the all-day breakfast option.