Special K: No Miracle

Jared over at The Lose Weight Diet is with us on the inherent bullshittiness (yes, we invented that word) of “The Special K Challenge,” from his post:

Special K cereal does not cause weight loss in any way whatsoever. It’s just calories. There are no weight loss vitamins, minerals, ingredients or magic fairy dust in it that makes it any different than any other calories. Sure, it’s low fat, and that’s always nice. Sure, it’s low in calories too, but so is everything else that’s low in fat. It is calories and nothing more.

Do you know what that means? It means that if someone is going to claim Special K makes you lose weight, or even just slightly helps you lose weight, you can equally claim that it makes you gain weight. Why? BECAUSE IT’S CALORIES.

Readers of this blog may harangue us for writing about something so obvious, but Special K is Kellogg’s best selling product because of this campaign, and blog searches reveal scores of women who are taken in by the “drop a jeans size” claim. Here’s a podcast from Advertising Age explaining “how Special K has evolved from a simple breakfast cereal to a megabrand dieting program that competes with Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.” —MEGHANN MARCO

Special K Cereal: The Miracle Diet Food [The Lose Weight Diet]

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  1. mfergel says:

    Meghann, I know you took this challenge with zero results, but you’re already thin. If you were to go down a size, you’d be invisible. ;-) Truth is, all of these products (the weight loss pills, etc.) always sneak in the fine print of “when part of an exercise plan.” The reality is, it’s really the exercise that is causing you to lose weight. Most folks could probably maintain their eating habits and still lose weight if they exercised 3 times a week or more……and real exercise…..not a casual 10 minutes on the stairmaster.

  2. formergr says:

    Jared says, “Sure, it’s low in calories too, but so is everything else that’s low in fat.” Jared is wrong.

    A lot of foods marketed as “low fat” are pumped up with high fructose corn syrup or other high calorie sweeteners to make up for the flavor lost by removing the fat. Hence, it may be low fat, but it’s not at all necessarily low in calories.

  3. MeOhMy says:

    I pointed this out to my wife when she once mentioned trying this “diet.” You get only a few more calories if you eat one serving of Peanut Butter Crunch for breakfast and lunch!

    I like how they say eat your third meal and consume beverages “as you normally do.” They should add to the fine print that drinking Mountain Dew and beer all day and capping your regimen with a BK Quad Stacker before bed is probably not going to get you very far. “I took the Special K Challenge….and lost.”

  4. Principia says:

    Crap like this ad campaign is what draws a big line between programs like Weight Watchers (or the Lose Weight Diet, for that matter) that teach you eating/lifestyle habits that are maintainable for a lifetime versus programs that are interested in selling you their overpriced packaged foods.

    Granted, WW does sell some packaged foods (mostly in response to complaints from members that they didn’t have any), but they aren’t marketed as the “Oh you must eat our magical food or you’ll balloon to the size of a Volkswagen Bus.”

  5. Kornkob says:

    “Most folks could probably maintain their eating habits and still lose weight if they exercised 3 times a week or more……and real exercise…..not a casual 10 minutes on the stairmaster.”

    Most folks would loose weight even with mild casual exercise— just not very dramatically. Even slight changes in diet and exercise can have significant (although not dramatic) impact on your weight.

    Dropping a couple hundred callories a day between mild exercise and subtle changes in eating behaviors is really allmany people need and is a great start for the rest. Rapid weight loss is neither healthy nor a very realistic goal.


    Don’t write off the small stuff. Don’t advertise it like it’s a cure-all miricle either.

  6. lemur says:

    mfergel says “The reality is, it’s really the exercise that is causing you to lose weight. Most folks could probably maintain their eating habits and still lose weight if they exercised 3 times a week or more……and real exercise…..not a casual 10 minutes on the stairmaster.”

    I don’t think anything mfergel says precludes what I’m going to say but want to present another angle on the question of exercise and diet.

    I’ve had a heart attack at age 24 due to a genetic condition causing hypercholesterolemia, a problem that was compounded by an uncontrolled diet at the time and by obesity. Doctors talked to me about diet and exercise. I followed their dietary recommendations, cut down on fat, increased veggies and fruit, cut down on calories, snacks, etc. My cholesterol went down but not low enough. So the doctors kept insisting on exercise. They really really emphasized exercise. They talked about weight reduction but they always presented exercise as the key. For a few years, I would spend 30 minutes sweating on the bike and then another 45 minutes doing weights. Doing that, my cholesterol stayed high and I was still overweight.

    I eventually dropped off from that whole exercise regimen. I also came across the Hacker’s Diet. There’s nothing magical to it. It’s just calorie counting with a series of methods to follow to make it work. And it’s free. Following that method, I was able to lose 40 pounds in a year and my cholesterol level is a little higher than it should be but much lower than it ever was.

    So the key to my cholesterol problem was to lose weight and the key to losing weight was not exercise but serious calorie counting. I’m not saying that exercise is not important but some people might want to concentrate their energies elsewhere. I’ve suffered for years to try to lose weight through exercise without getting results and that was all the while following a pretty good diet.

    I also want to caution against dismissing the whole Special K thing too quickly. Yes, calories are just calories. If Kellogg is saying there’s something inherently different in Special K that makes it better than anything else in terms of its nutrients, then shame on them. However, dieting is hard and calorie counting is really annoying. (This comes from someone who has at some point been querying the USDA nutritional database on a regular basis and produced several pages of spreadsheets to count the calories in his meals.) Someone might find that the expedient of replacing some meals with Special K helps them keep track of calories and lose weight. It has to be done reasonably, but if it really helps, then I say do it. The overall health benefits may be well worth it.

  7. lemur says:

    Oops…

    I should have mentioned that the 30 minutes bike + 45 minutes weight regimen was daily.

  8. formergr says: “Jared says, “Sure, it’s low in calories too, but so is everything else that’s low in fat.” Jared is wrong.

    A lot of foods marketed as “low fat” are pumped up with high fructose corn syrup or other high calorie sweeteners to make up for the flavor lost by removing the fat. Hence, it may be low fat, but it’s not at all necessarily low in calories.”

    Hi, I’m Jared. Fat has 9 calories per gram, carbs and protein have 4. This is why high fat foods always double as high calorie foods. Similarly, low fat foods (which therefore end up being high in either protein or carbs) are low calorie foods most of the time.

    When I said foods low in fat, I meant foods naturally low in fat. For example, tuna fish and brown rice. I didn’t mean foods marketed as low fat foods. There’s a big difference there. Although, those foods (while complete junk high in all of the things you mentioned most of the time) still usually end up being lower (at least by a little) in calories than their high fat version.

    You’re definitely not wrong here, I just could have been more clear.

    Oh, and thanks for the mention Meghann.

  9. etinterrapax says:

    I’m ot sure why the Ad Age information is news, either. Special K has been “diet food” for at least the quarter-century-plus that I’ve been aware of advertising. I believe–though I’m really just guessing–that as Americans have become more overweight, and focused on easy fixes, Special K has just taken its existing ad arc and tweaked it to fit current cultural imperatives. Smart of them, really. It doesn’t require a new message, brings in new customers, and recaptures the attention of the old ones. I’m more of a low-carb girl, myself, but if I had the physical capacity to feel full after a single serving of Special K with nonfat milk, ick, I’d be all over it.

  10. lemur:

    “So the key to my cholesterol problem was to lose weight and the key to losing weight was not exercise but serious calorie counting.”

    The latest scuttlebutt I’ve been seeing is that to LOSE weight calorie counting is more important but to MAINTAIN weight, exercise matters more. So for a comprehensive weight-loss plan, both are going to matter in the end, but it’s cutting down on the calories that’ll take the weight off faster, and exercising that’ll help keep it off.

    “I also want to caution against dismissing the whole Special K thing too quickly. Yes, calories are just calories.”

    Yeah, one of the first things my nutritionist reccommended was that for breakfast I have one 100-calorie bowl of a high-fiber cereal (plus however many calories of skim milk). No cooking, no counting, no measuring, no snacking, no “just one extra bit of …”

    The Special K challenge is about portion control and not snacking between meals. It’s clearly not the most nutritionally complete way to eat two meals a day, but it’s basically the same way Slim Fast and proprietary diet plan meals work — don’t snack between meals, and have this calorie-controlled amount of food for breakfast and lunch.

    High-fiber old-people cereal fills you up a lot longer than Special K, though.

  11. brew400 says:

    kellogg’s = blasphimers

  12. Metschick says:

    My sister lost about 30 pounds on the Special K diet. Granted, it was all she ate. And she messed up her system by not eating foods with proteins and different vitamins. So, there’s that.

  13. formergr says:

    Cool Jared, thanks for the clarification, you’re absolutely right.

  14. Leto says:

    I eat Special K all the time, but not to lose weight. The Red Berries cereal is like manna from heaven.

  15. I agree with Leto. I rarely eat sweets, and the berry Special K is like dessert. Yum!

  16. SpecialK says:

    Heh.

  17. Trai_Dep says:

    I can see Special K being a good thing for breakfast skippers. Have a relatively high fiber, low-fat (something) in your morning stomach, and wave the bear claw and muffin temptations away with vim and verve!

    So props to Kellogg’s for that aspect, but let’s not go crazy, people.

  18. Xkeeper says:

    Yeah, Weight Watchers actually works (I happen to know first-hand), and it’s actually something that teaches life skills and not just “lose weight fast by eating our cereal! lolz.”

    They do offer pre-packaged food, but most of the itme it’s just because it’s quick and easy and takes no time to prepare, and a lot of times the vending machine snacks aren’t exactly, you know, healthy.

  19. oudemia says:

    Was SpecialK the “Can you pinch an inch?” cereal whose commercials I remember from the early 80s?

  20. etinterrapax says:

    Oudemia, yes, it was. Heh. An inch! If you weren’t a walking sack of bones, their position was that you needed a diet. Special K doesn’t really even have fiber in it! Eating the box is probably healthier.