Before Ozempic, there was the Special K Diet of the early noughties. It explains a lot.

This article includes descriptions of disordered eating that may be distressing to some readers.

It's 2004. You're sitting watching The OC after dinner. It cuts to ads, right at the most pivotal moment of all time (of course), and you're suddenly watching a woman trying to squeeze into her jeans. 

It's Kellogg's 'Special K Challenge', and you only have to eat two bowls of cereal for two weeks to drop a jeans size. Not only will it help you lose weight, but it'll help you keep it off, the ad tells you. You make a mental note to tell your mum to get some cereal tomorrow.

Fast forward to 2023, and the problematic diet has recently exploded on TikTok, with people sharing their experiences and questioning why this was ever a real... thing.

Because these days, the dieting landscape has changed dramatically — and chances are, you can't imagine something like this ever on our television screens.

Watch: Georgia Love talks fad diets. Post continues below.

Video via Palmers

It's worth noting that the marketing for the 'Special K Challenge' is no longer in circulation, and has very much been dropped by Kellogg's. (However, if you Google 'Special K diet' you'll find that it's very much still a thing).


So, in an age of Ozempic, slimmed-down Kardashians and questionable celebrity statements on losing weight, it makes you wonder: Have we really come a long way? Or has diet culture just been somewhat... re-packaged?

Here, we take a deep dive into one of the most popular (and problematic) diets of the early noughties: The Special K Challenge.

What was the Special K Challenge?

In case you haven't heard of Kellogg's Special K Challenge, dietitian and author of the best-selling book The Nude Nutritionist, Lyndi Cohen describes it as an "incredibly problematic diet promoted in the early 2000s." 

"In the diet, you were encouraged to have a bowl of Special K for breakfast and lunch and just consume a dinner of your choosing. This was very much a short-term quick-fix fad approach to losing weight," she explained.

Snacking on Special K bars was allowed, as well as Special K shakes, fruit and vegetables.

"According to the marketing from the company you could lose up to a dress size in two weeks, which is an incredibly large amount of weight to lose in a very short period," said Cohen. 

If it sounds restricting, that's because... it is. And incredibly unsustainable.

As Cohen said, not only does it not allow any room for socialising, freedom and flexibility — but it's a diet that lacks nutrition.


"And what we know from a healthy diet is that variety is essential. By limiting what you eat to one type of food for too many meals, you're really limiting the amount of nutrients you can eat in your diet."

While Special K would give you some fibre, a source of slow-burning carbohydrates and probably some calcium from the milk, Cohen said "it's certainly not a healthy option to consume for two meals a day."

As Dr Sonja Coetzee, who is a leading GP for InstantScripts told Mamamia, "Calorie restriction and a very stringent diet with restricted meal types available can have some detrimental effects."

"Some of the problems with the Special K diet included boredom and diet fatigue. Other concerns are that it contains hydrogenated oils, and sorbitol — a type of sugar that can cause abdominal bloating and gas in some case, constipation." 

Why did people do the Special K Challenge? 

The Special K diet was successful mainly because it was simple. 

As Dr Coetzee said, it was characterised by three clever things: "Ready access to the cereal. Minimal meal preparation. Reasonable short-term results."

Cohen added, "I think a diet like this is something that people actually love to follow because it's very black and white. There are very clear rules about what you can and can't eat and when you can have it."

"In a way, it's far simpler than trying to think about having a very balanced diet for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she continued.


Together with this, it's also important to remember that diet culture was rife in the early 2000s. We were still coming off the back of '90s heroin chic, and the idealised body type was still incredibly slim.

"And it was still far more socially acceptable to sell a diet, even if it was a quick fix," said Cohen. "There weren't any anti-diet advocate advocates at the time. It isn't it outrageous diet and I think any consumer now can see that it is a very unsustainable approach."

"But it was very much promoted and popular at the time. I think I even remember giving the Special K Challenge a try for a few weeks but I found it a little late unsustainable and limiting and I was really hungry."

What was the impact of the Special K Challenge?

The Special K Challenge was seen and marketed as an 'easy solution' to weight loss. 

Instead of looking at the underlying cause of the issue, people consumed bowls of cereal for breakfasts, lunches and snacks because Special K would solve their problems. 

The humble bowl of cereal was essentially seen as the 'magic bullet' for weight loss.

However, the fallout of the restrictive diet was hard — and it took a physical and mental toll on those who took part in the challenge.

"The impact on your social life, limiting the ability to go out for meals with your friends, is pretty severe," said Cohen. 

"From a mental perspective, I think this diet would absolutely mess with your relationship with food, making you far more likely to do things like emotional eating, or binge or become obsessed with food and your weight."


"I think even if you did lose a few kilograms from it, it would be unlikely that you'd be able to maintain that weight loss and you'd likely regain it once you stopped following this diet." 

Of course, the idea behind the consumption of cereal instead of meals essentially just provides an aggressive and unsustainable way to reach a calorie deficit every day. 

"The way that this diet would work is that you're fundamentally reducing portions and calories. And that typically does result in some weight loss," confirmed Cohen.

However, it's important to note that it did not solve any underlying problems — the people that shed weight on this extreme diet did so because consumed fewer calories, not because they consumed Special K. ⁣⁣And like most fad diets, it provided a short-term high.

Studies now tell us that things like calorie restriction and dieting do not work for long-term weight loss. In fact, 95 per cent of individuals end up regaining the weight, if not more. We know this for a fact. 

Cohen said, "Most people end up regaining more weight than they're lost on the diet. And this is a prime example of one of fad diets."

As Dr Coetzee adds, "Calorie restriction does not keep you full for long. You may be missing out on essential nutrients, it does not include exercise and there's no provision for longer-term weight loss strategy." 


"A major drawback I see is that the calorie restriction can put the body int into starvation mode that then reduces metabolic rate and causes problems for future weight loss," she said. 

Have we really come a long way from the Special K Challenge?

So, where are we at now? Looking back on a diet that had a chokehold on a generation of women in the late nineties and early 2000s, are we really in a better place in 2023?

"We have come a long way since this special diet," said Dr Coetzee. "We now realise that for successful long weight management, good eating patterns need to be established and there is more to weight loss than just calorie restriction. For example, hormones (in particular leptin) are now recognised as major factors."

"I think many people got hooked on it because back in the early 2000s, we were still willing to sacrifice our health simply to weigh less. And that was far more socially acceptable," said Cohen.

She added, "These days, I don't think a brand like Special K could promote such a disordered diet and for it to be well-received by the public. And that just goes to show just how far we've come."

"We're a lot more aware of the dangers of dieting, the impact on our physical and mental wellbeing in the long term. And the way that it fundamentally doesn't do what it says it will on the box, which is to help us lose weight and keep it off," she said.

These days, there's no question that the health and dieting landscape has changed dramatically — and these days the marketing and messaging around the popular Special K Challenge just wouldn't fly.


However, in saying that, there are still many, many different fad diets out there — a lot of which simply replace the concept of cereal with something else. And they all offer similar short-term success without addressing the root of the problem.

With this in mind, have we really come a long way since the Special K Challenge?

No matter what way you want to look at it, one thing rings true: In 2023, the future of weight loss continues to feel quite murky and problematic. 

With weight loss drugs like Ozempic on the rise and celebrities shifting our perception of body standards, it's very clear that the search for the 'magic bullet' is far from over. It's just no longer in your bowl of cereal.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).

Do you remember the Special K Challenge? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty; Canva.

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