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Diet Food or Detrimental Food? A Conversation with Lisa Lillien AKA Hungry Girl

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My first encounter with Lisa Lillien, or Hungry Girl as her fans know her, was via a 100-calorie snack pack my friend was eating. She said she was eating it because Hungry Girl had recommended it in one of her daily newsletters extolling diet advice. I looked at the ingredients. I looked at her. I asked her if it bothered her that most of them were preservatives or synthetically made in a laboratory. She shrugged and said “no.” Judging from Hungry Girl’s success (several books, a Food Network show, a brand spokesperson), apparently many people are willing to make this trade-off: size 4 jeans today, potential health complications tomorrow.

Lillien started Hungry Girl after she was able to lose 20 pounds and told friends and family about her dieting methods, who were eager to learn about the “guilt-free ingredients” she used (a staple Hungry Girl phrase)—essentially you can eat the Chocolate Marshmallow Madness Cupcakes or Fettucine Hungry Girlfredo you crave, but the ingredients are fat-free or low-fat, thanks to their synthetic make-up designed specifically for this purpose. The ingredients are also often the brands she has partnered with, like Lean Cuisine (video) and the Laughing Cow cheese—though, for the most part, these financial relationships were solidified after Lillien endorsed them on her site.

In the big picture, Lillien contends that she is doing more good than harm with her brand: “I’m helping thousands of obese people lose weight in this country. Is it better to be obese and have heart disease than be thinner and worry about preservatives? Even my doctor recommends 100-calorie snack packs.”

It’s not so much that Lillien downplays the health issues associated with preservatives and synthetic ingredients, it’s that she flat-out denies there’s a connection at all. Nor does she believe the recent finding that artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause weight gain. But then I considered it—if she conceded any of that, wouldn’t her diet empire collapse like a house of cards?

Eating Real Food is Unrealistic

Lillien says that the diet food she recommends (and the recipes she incorporates them into) is just one part of a regimen that involves lean meats, vegetables, and grains, as well as exercise, but I question whether that is what her readers take away from it. My bet is they want a cheat sheet for eating the junk food that made them heavy in the first place, and those are the primary tips they seek from her. Even Lillien says, “My followers don’t need me to tell them to eat healthy and exercise. ‘Shopping the periphery’ and eating like Michael Pollan just isn’t realistic; people tend to tune out messages that aren’t realistic.”

Perhaps no one can stand to eat organic beet greens at every meal, but does it mean we have to cater to the lowest common denominator? How about we start teaching some self-control? Why must Americans constantly think super-sizing and all-you-can-eat buffets are a god-given right? People need their attitude toward food adjusted, not their food adjusted to serve their appetites. Much of the obsession with food is mental and no amount of calorie cutting will eliminate that. Carnie Wilson, who after undergoing a gastric bypass channeled her addiction toward alcohol, has said, “It’s a disease and we need to treat it like that.”

The Diet Factor

Lillien has become accustomed to criticism, and has no problem discussing her beliefs, but more than once during our conversation she wondered why she is consistently made the villain in food wars. “Why do people come after me when Paula Deen and other Food Network stars are making decadent full-fat meals that are damaging to people’s health?”

After we hung up, I thought it over and decided it’s the diet factor. Paula Deen doesn’t apologize for her artery-clogging food. You know what you’re getting with her recipes. Lillien’s brand message, intentional or not, is the old line that many modern women have come to despise: “get skinny, fit into that little black dress, woo the man”—even if it comes at the expense of your health.

The bubbly prose, the cartoon depiction of herself, and the pastel colors Lillien chooses for her brand evoke women, and especially young women. Lillien has not only partnered with processed food brands, but also actively pursues product placement. Hungry Girl has been featured on Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh and iCarly (Lillien’s husband, Dan Schneider, is a producer). The target demographic is tweens ages 9 to 14. The iCarly website’s second largest group of visitors is in the 3-to-12 age range. Targeting young girls with diet products is probably not something Lillien should do if she wants to avoid criticism.

Be Healthy, Forget the Scale

I would hope that most women understand that it’s not so much fitting an ideal size as being happy with the one you have, while continuing to be healthy. Personally, I am not a size 4 and I gave up trying to be one a long time ago. I learned to embrace my curves while working out regularly and eating real food—yes, sometimes full-fat ice cream (Lillien asked me this as if I had just eaten live insects in front of her). I just don’t eat it every day, or even every month. And my cholesterol levels are the lowest in my family.

But, yes, every person is unique in their approach to diet and exercise, with their own set of personal issues and cravings to overcome. For Lillien, Hungry Girl is a “stepping stone brand.” She wants people to learn to make better choices gradually, even if it means substituting sugar with Splenda. The way this country is going, there will be no shortage of customers for what Hungry Girl is selling, but is this the lesson we want to be teaching?

Sep. 13 2011 |
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