What Will You Gain? Not What Special K Thinks

“What will you gain when you lose?”

The breakfast-cereal-turned-diet-plan-and-weight-loss-behemoth Special K took this cute, clever phrase as their motto sometime in the past few years, and ever since I get an uncomfortable feeling whenever I pick up a box of Special K Oats and Honey at the grocery store.

Full disclosure: I do still buy it, though. It’s one of the few foods that have more or less successfully bridged the gap between my disordered eating and my much more normalized eating of the moment. It fills two requirements that were important for my food choices both then and now: it’s low in calories, and it tastes delicious.

I might be the only person alive who thinks Special K actually tastes really good, since everyone I’ve asked tells me it tastes like cardboard. To each his own.

Still, the idea of Special K as a lifestyle, a diet plan, and a means of measuring one’s worth isn’t something I’m embracing along with the taste of Vanilla Almond or Cinnamon Pecan. The commercials advertising cereal as the be-all, end-all way to finally lose weight, get in shape, and have a meaningful life are so against everything I believe as a body image activist that I want to bang my head against a brick wall every time I see one.

Special-K-Challenge2Women are seen stepping on scales that, instead of a number, proudly display motivational adjectives like “pride,” “satisfaction,” “confidence,” “joy,” “excitement,” or “sass.” If we replace our ordinary meals with Special K cereal, meal bars, protein shakes, or tasteless chips that are allegedly supposed to taste like popcorn (I like the cereal, but the popcorn chips were beyond disappointing), suddenly we’re supposed to evolve into the beautiful butterflies we’ve always been meant to become.

Let me put this advertising schema into a complete sentence, to better demonstrate my problem with it. “If I could just restrict my food intake to these specific, safe products, I would lose those extra couple of pounds, and then I could finally be happy with myself. Just a few pounds more. And even if it takes a little longer for the weight to come off eating like this, at least if I’m only eating these safe foods I will at the very least maintain my weight.”

If I were to write down the mantra for my six-round fight with anorexia, it would look exactly like that.

What will you gain when you lose? Well, looking at it this way, a highly skewed sense of what makes you valuable as a person, a super-honed sense of what you weigh at any given moment of any given day, and an unjustified taste for cardboard pretending to be popcorn.

Not, most likely, any of these things:


Weight loss can be healthy for some people who are trying to make positive lifestyle changes, but there is a big difference between somebody making changes for their health and those making changes so they’ll look at themselves in pictures, wear a bikini on the beach, or get their husband to look at them again.

And trust me, as a person in stable recovery from an eating disorder, you can actually lose way more when you lose, if you go about it in the way that Special K seems to support.

Saying that you can gain sass and confidence and joy by losing weight implies not-so-subtly that you weren’t sassy or confident or joyful before. Check out the subliminal messaging in this Special K ad from 2008. Sure, the wordplay on “loser” as a weight loss “success story” is obvious, but I don’t think it’s as tongue-in-cheek as they’re trying to pretend.

Also, do you want to know the secret to any success that anyone has ever had taking the Special K challenge?

Hint: it has nothing to do with the brand. If you eat only one bowl of cereal or one meal-replacement shake for two meals every day, no matter what cereal it is, you’re cutting your calories like crazy. Also, you’re missing out on valuable nutrients like Vitamin C, protein, Vitamin A, and iron. Just saying. I don’t recommend it. It will also make you miserable.

Weight loss is almost always equated with positive consequences in advertising and the media. Lose the weight, live a happier, healthier, more attractive life. Weight gain, on the other hand, is painted negatively. Demonized, even. You gain weight, and you’ve failed. You have no self-control. You have no willpower. You’re out of shape, you’re the “before” picture that needs to be changed, you’ve done something wrong.

And for someone in recovery, getting beat over the head with the weight-loss-equals-self-worth equation can be exhausting and destructive.

So, maybe Special K is asking the wrong question. For those of us considering, working for, or struggling with recovery, there’s a much better one to be asking.

What will you gain when you gain?

For example, what have I gained?

  • I’m no longer cold in the summer, unless the weather actually warrants it.
  • When I want to go for a run, I don’t have to worry about people giving me sidelong looks at the gym or friends giving me that “is that really a good idea?” head-tilt.
  • My doctor’s appointments are much shorter now, which is lovely, because they will never be fun.
  • My sleep schedule has started to regulate itself. I can stay awake past 10pm again, and I’m not always waking up at 4 in the morning.
  • Sleep is much easier when you’re not lying awake wondering if you should get up and do sit-ups.
  • It’s also much easier when you’re not actually doing sit-ups.
  • I gained my period back. It’s really a magical, crazy process if you can think about it objectively. (Even though it sucks most of the time.) I could be making a baby in there!
  • I actually have some kind of curves now. Not strapless-dress curves, since I’m not coming from a well-endowed family, but I get mistaken for a boy much less often.
  • Because my metabolism is less skittish now, if I overdo it on dessert one day and then eat healthy the next, my body more or less knows how to take it in stride.
  • I don’t get freezing cold after I finish eating a meal. It’s been at least nine months since I last had to take a shower to warm up after dinner.
  • People make less rude and/or thoughtless comments about my weight. I realize that this represents my privilege as someone who was able to regain weight to a point society deems “socially acceptable,” and I also recognize that this is not my problem. Still, it’s a privilege that I appreciate because up until recently I didn’t have it, and it makes my day-to-day life a lot easier.
  • I can eat dessert every day because I have learned the value of moderation, satisfying desires, and giving your body what it actually wants. (Yes, that’s for real. I, in recovery from an eating disorder, eat dessert every single day. And it is delicious.)
  • I’m more emotionally stable now. Small problems don’t send me off the deep end any more. I can think about difficult situations rationally and objectively. Sometimes I can even blog about them.

What have I gained when I gained?








What will you gain when you decide that Special K cannot better your life, and neither can your weight?



  1. Yay, good for you! There are so many women affected by society’s pressures…it sickens me that this is the world that we have created for us and for our children. It’s such a shame. Thanks for speaking out!

    Courtney Hosny

  2. No matter how any processed food tries to dress itself up, it is what it is. The best food does not come in a box or a packet!!! If people ate a wholefoods plant based( that’s mostly plants not exclusively vegan) then there would not be any obesity. People who live in such societies do NOT need self control or discipline to maintain their body weight. Natural food and normal homeostasis do the job just fine.

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