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Hungry Girl’s food advice leaves fans craving more

Los Angeles Times If you’ve seen the Hungry Girl logo in your local supermarket or on TV or the Web, you’d have no trouble picking Lisa Lillien out of a crowded room: She looks exactly like her cartoon alter ego, down to the gleaming white smile, green eyes and bouncy brown hair. (Los Angeles Times / The Spokesman-Review)
Los Angeles Times If you’ve seen the Hungry Girl logo in your local supermarket or on TV or the Web, you’d have no trouble picking Lisa Lillien out of a crowded room: She looks exactly like her cartoon alter ego, down to the gleaming white smile, green eyes and bouncy brown hair. (Los Angeles Times / The Spokesman-Review)
Rene Lynch Los Angeles Times

Lisa Lillien considers the bowl of cocktail wieners simmered in a quick-fix barbecue sauce as if she were appraising a fine wine.

First, she swirls – to evaluate the richness. Then, she sniffs. Tasting a spoonful of the sauce, she nods approvingly.

Then comes the moment of truth: She bites into a wiener. Wrinkles her nose. And pronounces it awful.

“The sauce is incredible,” Lillien says. “But the dogs are rubbery.”

Standing in her Los Angeles test kitchen, wearing jeans and a hot-pink track suit jacket, Lillien, 43, might not look like she leads one of the most devoted and willing-to-spend-money armies out there: women on diets.

Lillien is the creator of Hungry Girl, that bouncy cartoon character that dispenses calorie-saving recipes, health and diet tips, and tell-it-like-it-is product reviews in daily e-mail blasts.

She started in 2004 with 70 subscribers, all of them friends and family. Today, she has more than 750,000 subscribers, and Hungry Girl is on track to have 1 million by the end of 2009.

With the traffic has come success. Among the Web site’s advertisers are Weight Watchers and Dreyer’s light ice cream.

Lillien’s first book, “Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World,” came out in 2008 and shipped more than 600,000 copies.

Her straight talk about calories helped drive her second book, “Hungry Girl: 200 Under 200” – 200 recipes that clock in at less than 200 calories per serving – to the No. 1 spot on The New York Times’ best-seller list this year.

She has two more books on the horizon, a TV project in the works and an endorsement deal with General Mills’ Fiber One line. They inked a deal after learning that Hungry Girl pulverizes the cereal and uses it to add crunch to seemingly everything, from the coating on faux-fried chicken dishes to the crust on low-cal cheesecakes.

Lillien’s latest plan: taking on nutrition labels.

She wants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to crack down on packaging that misstates – or understates – the calories and nutrients contained within. She also wants labels to accurately reflect the calories in real-life serving sizes, something likely to shock consumers.

Lillien recently told readers – mainly women, but also some men – she plans to take food items to a lab for analysis to see how their calorie counts compare with the labels. She asked them to recommend products for scrutiny. Within a few hours, she had 400.

“People really want this information,” Lillien says. “And I’m like their crazy friend who will actually go and figure this out.”

Her e-mail blasts are wrapped in a sherbet color scheme and a writing style punctuated by CAPS and exclamation points.

It’s a carefree, best-girlfriend style that the Long Island, N.Y. native honed during a career that began with her first job out of college: editor in chief for Tutti Frutti, a teenage celebrity magazine.

She later moved into TV as executive producer for TV Land Online and director of convergence development at Nickelodeon Online.

Along the way, Lillien constantly struggled with an extra 20 pounds. In 2002, she says, “I just said, ‘Enough!’ ”

She lost weight by walking on her treadmill, cleaning up her diet and taking a hard look at trigger foods – like potato chips – that sent her diet into a tailspin. She also concocted low-cal snacks and substitutes for foods that gave her trouble.

When she shared her results with family and friends, they demanded more.

“I knew I was on to something,” she says.

Lillien quit her job to see if she could turn Hungry Girl into a business.

“I told my husband, ‘If after a year, this is just an expensive hobby, I will go back to work,’ ” she says. (Her husband, Dan Schneider, created and executive-produces the Nickelodeon hit “iCarly.”)

Hungry Girl quickly built a following.

“We’ve never spent one penny to advertise it,” says Lillien, who adds that she chose an e-mail blast because she wanted people to want it, to sign up for it, to pass it along – not just trip over it on the Internet.

As the subscribers grew, so did Lillien’s staff. She now has nine employees, including a graphic designer, recipe developers and researchers.

But the essence is still Hungry Girl.

“She’s really brings humor to it, and you can totally relate to her,” says Danica Pike of Fairfield, Calif.

Pike, a Hungry Girl subscriber for more than four years, appreciates Lillien’s easy recipes and honest reviews: “She’s not like other diet blogs that will just plug any product.”

With Americans spending more than $35 billion a year on weight-loss products, makers of low-calorie snack foods clamor for Lillien’s stamp of approval. A flood of new products arrives on her doorstep each week in the hopes of getting an e-mail shout-out.

Lillien’s clout comes from a personal code of ethics: She does not accept payment in exchange for a review or e-mail mention. And she recommends or accepts advertising dollars only from products she personally uses.

Critics say her recipes may be low-cal, but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy.

Wrote one: “I am not a fan of Hungry Girl. She advocates processed foods in landfill-filling single serving packages, Splenda, cooking spray instead of olive oil, etc. It’s the same dieting nonsense that has made the U.S. fatter each year.”

Lillien argues that her critics are missing the point: Hungry Girl subscribers are well-versed about nutrition – they don’t need to be lectured. Instead, they’re looking for low-calorie ways to scratch a snack itch without blowing their diets.

Her reaction is the same to both the criticism and those who push her to expand in new directions.

The way she sees it, her credibility, her voice is all she has. And if she were to nibble away at that – by handing the e-mails over to someone else, or taking advertising dollars for products she wouldn’t use, or putting her name on a fee-based diet plan – she’d run the risk of turning off her friends, which is how she sees her followers.

“People would see right through that,” she says. “That would water down the power of the brand.

“(Advisers) keep telling me, ‘One day you’ll need to decide what you really want to focus on.’ But they don’t understand that that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Bacon-Bundled BBQ Shrimp

Adapted from “Hungry Girl: 200 Under 200: 200 Recipes Under 200 Calories,” by Lisa Lillien. She writes, “This is a fantastic party recipe. The shrimp, bacon and BBQ sauce combo makes it nearly impossible for anyone to believe that these are guilt-free in any way. Yet each one has less than 30 calories!”

1/3 cup canned tomato sauce

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 tablespoon brown sugar (not packed)

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Nonstick spray

8 slices extra-lean turkey bacon, halved crosswise

16 large (not jumbo) raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails removed

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the tomato sauce, ketchup, sugar, vinegar and garlic powder until mixed well. Set aside.

Lightly spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Take 1/2 slice bacon and coat it in the sauce. Wrap the sauce-covered bacon around a shrimp and place it, seam-side down, on the baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the bacon and shrimp. Give them a quick mist with nonstick spray.

Bake in the oven until the shrimp are cooked through and the bacon is crispy, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool slightly before serving.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving (4 pieces): 88 calories, 1 gram fat (10 percent calories from fat) no saturated fat, 11 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 63 milligrams cholesterol, 561 milligrams sodium.

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