The Problem With The Special K Challenge

What is the challenge, exactly?

Yesterday while cruising around these here ‘nets, I stumbled upon a blog that I won't mention by name because it's irrelevant. One of the posts I read described a promotional event for the Special K challenge, wherein people stepped on a scale but instead of being told their weight, they were given an inspirational word. That's nice, right? Well, on the surface, yes. But let's dig a bit further, shall we?

As you can see in the image above, the motto of the Challenge is, "What Will You Gain When You Lose?" Right off the bat, we know that this challenge is predicated on weight loss, which, like I've said, doesn't have to be a bad thing. The idea that you have to lose in order to gain, though, does sort of send up a red flag for me. But maybe I'm not being entirely fair. So let's just go ahead and say that the motto isn't problematic. That gives us one less thing to deal with.

What is the challenge, exactly? The Special K Challenge is a two-week program that takes the nutrient-poor, calorie-restrictive meal plan that the cereal brand has been guilting women into for years and dresses it up with pretty colors and interactive web-based tools designed to appeal to the female eye (because obviously every woman loves pretty colors and clean designs!). On the website, you can choose the start date of your challenge, and customize your plan by choosing from four different menu types: Classic, Mix it Up (for foodies!), On-the-Go, and Chocolate Lover's (don't deny it ladies, you can't live without chocolate, especially during that time of the month, amirite?!). From there, you can mix and match Special K foods to create your own customized 14-day plan.

For the sake of research for this post, we'll look the Classic plan. Since there's a mix and match option,it seems that the different names given to the plans are cosmetic. After all, there are only so many varieties of Special K foods, and if you can change them around to suit your preferences within the parameters of the challenge, I don't really think it makes a difference which plan you end up going with. The plans give you the following: a Special K breakfast, a SK mid-morning snack, a SK lunch, a SK afternoon snack, and then dinner from a recipe provided by SK. You also have the option of eating unlimited fruits and vegetables throughout the day.

(click to enlarge)

The Problem With The Special K Challenge

So, let's take a look at a day like this in terms of calories. On Monday, the day starts with a bowl of Original cereal. Calorie count with milk: 160. And the cereal contains high fructose corn syrup. Lovely. Snack: 90 calories (and HFCS). Lunch: 180 calories (what, no HFCS?!) Snack: 90 calories. Dinner: 309 calories. Total caloric intake for the day: 829. 829 calories for an entire day. This makes me irate. Okay, yes, you can add in unlimited amounts of fruits and vegetables. But in order to bring that measly number up to something healthy, you are going to have to eat more fruits and vegetables than you can handle.

Let's take a minute to take a look at some facts about calorie intake. For the sake of the calculations we'll have to do, let's take a 165-pound, 5 ft. 4 in. female (the current average, according to the CDC), age 30, with a somewhat active lifestyle. The Mayo Clinic, whose calorie calculator I'm using for this little exercise, defines somewhat active thusly: "Include light activity or moderate activity two to three times a week". Her daily caloric needs: 2,000 calories. To be clear, this is the number of calories she would need to put in to her body in order to go through her daily routine and break even: 2,000 calories. If someone following the Challenge wanted to have a healthy diet, she would need to add 1,000-1,200 calories worth of fruits and veggies to her diet. Calorically, that's the equivalent of 10-12 bananas (I use the example of bananas here because they are one of the higher calorie fruits, and because fruits generally contain more calories than vegetables).

Another aspect of calorie management that we should take into account is basal metabolic rate, or BMR. Your BMR is the number of calories your body needs just to function on the most basic level. If you were to stay in bed all day, at rest, this is how many calories you would burn. Your body needs these calories in order to power the heart, the brain, the lungs, the kidneys–essentially, just to run at a steady state. The BMR for our hypothetical woman is 1,532, or about 700 calories more than allowed on the Special K Challenge plan. For the record, taking in fewer calories than the bodies uses leads to starvation.

Okay, now we've covered weight maintenance, but this Special K Challenge is a weight loss plan. Well, to lose weight, the woman in our example above would have to burn more calories than she is taking in. As we can see looking at the BMR, though, the body is burning calories all the time. I'm burning calories while I sit here writing this post. You are burning calories as you read it. That's why it takes so many calories for us to maintain our weight. That's also why when we eat less, we can't think as well, or react as quickly, or even be as nice to the people around us. Without the number of calories the body needs to power us through the day, the metabolism starts to go into conservation mode and the body starts to shut down. Healthy weight loss consists of one to two pounds a week. One pound is 3,500 calories. If we do the math, that means we should burn an additional 500 calories every day, which we can do through a combination of exercise and diet. To be symmetrical, let's say we'll eat 250 fewer calories and exercise to burn 250 calories each day. So now our hypothetical woman is eating about 1,750 calories a day, and losing weight at a sustainable, and healthy rate. And she's still consuming 950 more calories than she would be on the Special K plan. In other words, in order to lose weight in a healthy way, she'd still want to try and add about 9.5 bananas to her daily intake.

The Problem With The Special K Challenge

Either that, or she could hop on over to a site like My Pyramid and make up a meal plan that will deliver a variety of different foods: whole grains, lean meats and other protein sources, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables…and nary a drop of high fructose corn syrup. She could actually eat REAL FOOD, and still lose weight!

If you're still reading at this point, hopefully you understand to a certain extent why I find the Special K challenge to be so deplorable. Obviously there are resources that most people can access if they want to commit to a lifestyle that involves a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, and if someone wants to choose the Special K challenge over that option, it's their prerogative. But the fact of the matter is that Special K launches national campaigns advertising this program and making it seem like some sort of healthy choice. I know the challenge only lasts 14 days, but at no point over the course of those two weeks do you learn anything that will help you maintain the weight you've lost or continue losing weight if your goal is to do so. Moreover, if you do want to lose more weight, and you extend the amount of time you spend doing the challenge, you're not doing your body any favors. When I was at the height of my eating disorder, I'd estimate that my daily caloric intake was probably between 800 and 1,000. One of the many reasons why EDs are so dangerous is because long-term (and even short-term, in some cases), this kind of caloric restriction can kill you.

As far as I'm concerned, Special K's approach to nutrition and weight loss is irresponsible and representative of a corporate- and media-endorsed vision that this is the sort of plan that should be followed when one has weight to lose. Additionally, it depends on and adds to the intense pressure that women endure when it comes to their appearance. In campaigns that promote diets like this, thinness is equated with success, beauty, and happiness. In reality, treating your body this way is abusive and dangerous. Instead of letting cereal companies convince us that this is how we should be eating, we should be educating ourselves and fighting back. In a country where 10 million women and 1 million men are battling eating disorders, and clinical care for these disorders is costly and hard to access, I don't think it's unreasonable to assert that Special K and companies with similar "challenges" are part of the problem, and not the solution.

I'm aware of the fact that I don't have a huge amount of readers, but I still think it's possible that we can do something to get the word out about how wrong this is and maybe encourage people to take a second look at things like the Special K challenge, which may seem harmless on the outside. Please try to share this information with as many people as you can, and, if you're up to it, join me in a boycott of Special K products.

This post originally appeared on I Came To Run. Republished with permission.

Want to see your work here? Email us at submissions@jezebel.com.