x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hungry Girl takes guilt out of comfort food

With her website, Lisa Lillien has become both revered and criticised for her approach to low-calorie eating.

Lisa Lillien started coming up with low-calorie recipes and emailing them to friends 10 years ago. Nick Ut / AP Photo
Lisa Lillien started coming up with low-calorie recipes and emailing them to friends 10 years ago. Nick Ut / AP Photo

She never set out to become the maven of guilt-free, fun-food dieting, the go-to girl for people who want to have their cake - and cheeseburgers and chilli fries - and eat them, too.

No, 10 years ago, Lisa Lillien says, she was just another 30-something "Hungry Girl" living in Los Angeles, someone who needed to drop seven or nine kilograms and would do so periodically by following an all-liquid diet or a one-meal-a-day diet - or whatever other weight-loss regimen was in vogue.

Afterward, she'd return to her beloved jam-slathered bagels and french fries and gain it all back.

"Then one day I just woke up and I said, 'You know what? That's not the way to tackle a weight problem,'" says a trim Lillien, who presides over a multimillion-dollar empire of Hungry Girl cookbooks, low-calorie recipes, speciality products and TV shows, all of them geared to letting people eat the junk food they love and not get fat.

The trick is discovering why you're eating too many calories, says Lillien as she dashes from a couch at Hungry Girl headquarters to the kitchen to help an assistant whip up baked potato skins stuffed with cheese and bacon.

In her case and, she believes, most everybody else's, too many people are unwilling to give up comfort foods including pizza, spaghetti, cookies and cake in the name of better health.

Neither is Lillien, but these days she just remakes them - and a thousand other foods. Her baked potato skins, for example, are made from courgette stuffed with low-calorie cheese and bacon flavouring. Her chilli-cheese fries use butternut squash, not potatoes, clocking in at 268 calories, about a quarter of the original version.

Recipes for those and other feel-good foods such as lasagne, pizza and sponge cake have placed Lillien atop a brand that has grown phenomenally in the eight years since the former TV executive came up with the name and blasted a daily email to 75 people.

Today, 1.2 million subscribers get a mix of recipes, advice and ads for food companies whose products she endorses. Lillien, who started the business at home, now oversees a staff of 12.

To some extent, the headquarters more closely resembles a huge teenage girl's room with a kitchen thrown in. Pillows and cushions scattered about are decorated with pictures of Tootsie Rolls, Sweet Tarts and other candies.

Here, Lillien and her staff experiment, mad-scientist-like, she says, with thousands of recipes.

The result is Italian, Mexican, Chinese and even unique Hungry Girl food, the latter including all kinds of egg-white concoctions that can be microwaved in a mug. That came about because even before she began counting calories she was often too lazy to pull out a skillet and fry anything.

The recipes she whips up can be found on her Food Network and Cooking Channel TV shows and in seven books, which have sold more than 2.5 million copies. Her latest, Hungry Girl to the Max: The Ultimate Guilt-Free Cookbook, debuted at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for paperback advice books last month.

Food bloggers sometimes snipe about her recipes being as low in nutritional value as they are in calories. Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician who has published her own cookbooks, calls Lillien's recipes low-calorie junk food. But, Blatner quickly adds, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Two out of three people in this country are overweight. Do they need fewer calories? Is her whole enterprise teaching ways to achieve that? Yes," says Blatner from her Chicago office. For people who won't give up pizza and cheeseburgers, the Hungry Girl diet might not be a bad alternative.

Even Blatner says she's sampled some of Lillien's recipes, although she stays away from ones that use processed food products, preferring fresh fruit and vegetables.

"The spaghetti squash and butternut squash, the fun things she does with apples, I get most excited about those," she said.

Lillien believes her lack of credentials as a dietician or a nutritionist actually gives her more credibility with her audience, which realises she's one of them, just another foodie who doesn't want to sacrifice taste for trimness.

"If I'm helping people turn boxes around and turn cans around and read labels and understand what it means and learn how to maintain a healthier weight, then I'm doing good work," she says.