I remember seeing a girl eating cereal in a plastic bag in around eighth grade, and thinking "that’s not lunch, that’s just sad." But soon, I too, was eating bagged cereal. These depressing lunches were part of a new plan: If we did this for two weeks, we’d be two sizes (or six pounds) thinner, according to a box of Special K. This was not some strange cereal cult practice, but the Special K Challenge, a diet introduced and popularized in the early aughts thanks to the cereal brand’s marketing. It was relatively simple: Special K with skim milk for breakfast and lunch (or a snack bar for the latter), 2 snacks that were either fruit, vegetables, or a Special K product, followed by dinner, according to the annals of WebMD (the diet is no longer on Special K’s website). Notably, the diet—or “Challenge,” sorry—promised thinness, fast. Years later, you don’t hear of many people subsisting off of cereal to trim their waistlines—so, where’d that diet go?
Given the absence of the diet from the company’s website, Kellogg’s ostensibly doesn’t promote it anymore. If it did, you can imagine the uproar the company would face. For one, nutritionists reject its merits as a healthy program. “This short term diet plan with no changes made to overall lifestyle diet habits is not a sustainable way to live a healthier lifestyle or to meet your weight loss goals long term,” says Keri Glassman, R.D. “Diets like this one is often what leads people into yo-yo dieting,” a dangerous pattern with detrimental effects, including a possible greater risk of heart disease.
Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, dietitian and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies, stresses how “dramatically cutting calories can lead to increased hunger, cravings, and even possibly nutrient deficiencies or a slight decline in resting metabolism,” and how restrictive crash diets can lead to binge eating, often delineating any losses you initially made. Even Kellogg’s CEO John Bryant conceded the company was “basically asking people to deprive themselves where they have less calories,” as he put it on an earnings conference call in 2015. He realized, in reality, “people want to have weight wellness.”
These sorts of diets are now largely rebuked by consumers. Even if crash diets have some inherent appeal, a September 2016 report from research firm Mintel revealed that the majority of dieters surveyed were not looking for quick fixes, but for long-term programs that encouraged eating in moderation. Additionally, people are beginning to recognize that there isn’t necessarily a “one size fits all” approach to weight loss; a New York Times story from last fall demonstrated this in detail, proving that there’s not one direct way (or diet) to offset obesity, and that some diets don’t even work for some people. With sound research highlighting how not all bodies are physiologically the same and people prioritizing balance and healthiness over quickly shrinking themselves, it shouldn’t be a surprise that society (save for the trolls) has begun to embrace all shapes and sizes...and seek foods that offer sustenance and wellness, versus low calories and shortcuts to weight loss.
Nowhere is that ideal more obvious than at breakfast. Consider how the egg has gone from a shunned, cholesterol-laden oval to something that’s generally acknowledged as healthy. Low-fat and low-calorie cereals were compatible with how consumers vilified fat, but now, Palinski-Wade points to how unsaturated fats and lean protein are recognized as parts of a healthy diet. (Think about the avocado, the ambassador of this generation.)
Additionally, people’s eating habits are changing. “I think there is a focus on eating real, whole, unprocessed foods and that people are much more aware of this,” Glassman, who recommends a protein-and-fiber packed breakfast like a smoothie, says. All of that has had an effect on the cereal industry: A May 2017 report from IBISWorld highlighted the cereal industry’s slowdown, as people focus on low-carb or grain-free diets, or as those with more disposable income get breakfast on the go. (Yogurt and snack bars, not always healthy but certainly easy and quick, have also been blamed for the industry’s decline in the past.) IBISWorld also noted a rise in pricier, healthier cereals, like what you’d find at Whole Foods.
Where does that leave Special K? The brand is evidently trying to appeal to today’s dieter’s conscience by sharing ways to make its cereal more friendly to wellness culture. Kellogg’s promotes a list of “recipes” incorporating Special K into some favorite foods: eggs, burritos, bananas — suggesting Special K is trying to fit into a world where diets and breakfasts are legitimately balanced, not feigning balance. Kellogg’s also introduced Special K Nourish, which has more calories than its namesake cereal, and is made with quinoa, amongst other ingredients. Christine Crouch, Director of Special K Marketing, acknowledges women approach dieting differently than they did in the past, which has prompted the brand to launch a campaign called #OWNIT, encouraging women to own what they eat and do. The ad debuted last Monday, but a previous Canadian iteration of the campaign encouraged women to embrace their bodies.
So maybe Special K, if not its antiquated diet, could have a place in the contemporary diet. Palinski-Wade suggests cereal fanatics consume whole grain cereals, but with “a good source of protein to promote stable blood sugar levels and fight against hunger and cravings. It all comes down to balance.” Which probably means having something else for lunch.