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 |
  1. LiztheChef

    I hope that my remarks are not taken as criticism of Hungry Girl, rather as supportive of your position – 100%. Excellent post. Thank you.

  2. Lisa lillien

    This post has many inaccuracies in many forms… Including but not limited to quotes around things I never said. Also, I do not “actively pursue product placement” in Nick shows…. The words Hungry Girl don’t appaear on any nick shows or web sites.I certainly did not utter that flippant remark about preservatives and I myself do eat full fat ice cream (and pretty much every other thing) in moderation so the remark about eating insects is also a gross exaggeration of what we spoke about. And for the record I have not become accustomed to critiscism (because the HG brand is praised far more than it is criticized). Not sure if this comment will be read or deleted but I wanted to at least let people know that there are many inaccuracies here.

  3. jane

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for commenting, and I’m sorry you feel the article has inaccuracies. I was taking notes during our conversation and felt I represented your thoughts as you told them to me – quotes are often paraphrased in an article and people tend to object if it’s not the tone they meant to convey.

    As for product placement, how can you deny you don’t pursue it when just this morning I saw your post that you’ll be making a cameo appearance on iCarly? I was also a little surprised to see so many people respond saying that their children recognize you:

    I felt you had in fact “gotten used to” some criticism since you initially said on Twitter that you can handle questions like mine about preservatives causing cancer (as if you had addressed this in the past), and then during our phone conversation you wondered why you’re always being criticized compared to other food celebrities. I know your brand is immensely popular and I made a concerted effort to present a balanced piece and not blindly attack you as I’ve seen in other pieces.

    I am happy to post your response and would never think of deleting it. I love presenting an open dialogue with opinions on both sides — readers can then make their own decisions. I still appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.


  4. Annette

    As someone who is overweight but currently changing my lifestyle to eat better and exercising. I do see both sides ( LTBB and HG). For me personally I do have issues with most low-calorie, low-fat foods. I would rather cook/bake with real eggs vs. eggs in a carton, or sugar and use less of it than have all the artificial ingredients. However, this works for me personally. For each person it will be a different. Just like some people love Jenny Craig while others prefer Weight Watchers and some other Atkins.
    What has to be remember is that it’s about changing how you view food and your lifestyle and not about a quick fix.

  5. Kirsten

    I just went to the Hungry Girl website and saw the following description of an upcoming episode of her show on Food Network:

    “Yup, an entire episode devoted to large-and-in-charge, guilt-free food! Lisa’s dishing out recipes with enormous serving sizes. Plus, she’s stocking her supermarket cart with gigantic goodies and showing us foods with shockingly unrealistic serving sizes.”

    Does she seriously think she is helping the obesity epidemic by endorsing people eat “ENORMOUS serving sizes” of processed, unnatural foods? As someone who has always struggled with my weight I can clearly see the danger of pandering to consumers’ desire to overindulge. We are training people to think that an overflowing plate is the norm. Supersize it! How about some sanity: whole, healthy foods, in moderation…and the occasional treat. Still working on getting there myself. But, I truly feel that the way to do that will be through sites like LTBB, NOT Hungry Girl.

  6. lisa lillien

    Back again to clarify… there is no “product placement” on Nick shows. My husband produces them and to be cute sometimes puts in little “easter eggs” meaning– shows cartoon HG or has my show playing in the background. There is no logo and no messaging at all and only die-hard fans even pick up on it. There’s never a mention of “Hungry Girl” anywhere. HG subscribers and viewers are primarily 35-54 — with some 20-somethings and older folks in there as well — but it’s a brand that does NOT target teens. So there is no product placement. Re criticism, again, its not that I have gotten “used to it” but I do welcome the opportunity to explain my brand and how it helps hundreds of thousands of people every day. As I said to you on the phone, I don’t disagree with your points — at all — and as I also said to you on the phone — of course people would be better off eating clean all the time but that is not reality for America. Hungry Girl is definitely a realistic approach to making overall lifestyle changes people can live with forever. I use MANY MANY fresh ingredients — tons of produce, lean meats, etc in so many of my recipes. And will continue to. Its about balance, keeping people interested in changing their lifestyles for the long haul, not looking for a “magic bullet” and finding a plan they can live with forever. I am helping people — that in indisputable. There are two sides to every story and I understand that. As for large serving sizes — I don’t each people to overindulge in foods — but when i have recipes that are large and satisfying, I celebrate them! Most of them use TONS of veggies, too…. People are hungry and want to be told its ok to eat big portions every now and then because portion control is not easy 100% of the time. I LOVE being able to eat a large dish made with A LOT of veggies and that makes me feel ok about the two forkfuls of dessert I eat. It’s about balance and give and take… and REALITY. The “everything in moderation” is unrealistic to many Amercians and that is obvious when you look at the obesity problems we face in this country. Again — appreciate your willingness and openness to discussion on this…. thank you!

  7. Danielle

    I think you are being incredibly unfair. I am an HG subscriber, watch every show, and have most of the cookbooks. I am a little younger than the average age range (I am in my 20’s, and btw- it is apparent that the target age range is Gen X and Baby Boomers with a lot of the decor and such- nothing wrong with that, but I think if children are looking at the site, that’s probably unintended), but feel offended that you would think I am too dumb to understand the difference between clean, healthy eating and tweaking recipes to include them in an overall healthy diet. I would feel offended if I was 12 and you think that. Most Americans do understand that a healthy diet should be one with a large amount of healthy produce, a moderate amount of lean proteins and dairy, and a small amount of treats. Most Americans understand that moderate servings is best. Most women understand that they should feel happy with the body they were born with. However, there is pressure from everyone from media types, doctors, to the President’s wife to be thin and pretty. Let’s face it- we are looked down upon when we are overweight- so we try to lose weight. And when you are trying to lose weight, or even just maintain a healthy diet, you do the clean, healthy eating thing 80% of the time, but let’s not kid ourselves- we don’t always feel satisfied on that stuff. That is where people like Lillien and Devin Alexander come in. They find ways to make really unhealthy food somewhat healthier. And sometimes a lot healthier. I can tell you do not read Lillien’s blog daily, as I have been using it to diversify the amount of veggies I eat. One such recipe that has helped was Kale chips. Kale. Baked. Lightly salted. In what world is that not healthy? Here’s the thing- most readers of Lillien’s blog are not going to buffets and fast food restaurants all the time. They know the basics of healthy eating. But life happens and that is where HG comes in and makes you understand that it isn’t an all or nothing game. And even if that were taught to a 5 year old, that’s one less 5 year old who will look at eating as such a black and white scenario. I don’t think you and people like Michael Pollan realize how unbelievably stuck-up you seem. So you apparently like your grilled halibut and steamed spinach- fine, eat it! But let someone who wants to maintain their weight or even lose a few pounds without feeling constantly deprived have their “guilt-free” cupcake. It doesn’t effect you anyway!

  8. jane


    Just as you accuse me of not reading Hungry Girl’s website, you obviously don’t read mine. I don’t eat grilled halibut and steamed spinach every day. I enjoy pasta and potato chips as much as the next person. I just don’t think we need to have a free pass to eat it every day, and I definitely don’t think we should substitute synthetic ingredients to do it. And why must it be a “guilt-free” cupcake? Why not half of a real cupcake, or even the whole thing, as long as it’s not every day?

    When you say it doesn’t affect me when people eat in this “guilt-free” manner, you’re mistaken, because the more widespread this approach to food (or lack thereof) becomes, the more probable it is that one of my family or friends decides to eat this way and, in my opinion, put their long-term health at risk.

    I’m flattered that you lump me in the same category with Michael Pollan as “unbelievably stuck-up,” though I would hope that you would pause to understand that we may speak in extremes because the food system is fundamentally broken and we’re trying to wake people up to pay attention and demand change. Our food is littered with harmful additives, food dyes, pesticides, antibiotics, and more — if this doesn’t bother you, and “thin and pretty” is your main objective, then, as with Lillien, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I appreciate that you feel passionate about the subject. Thank you for commenting and keeping the conversation going with opinions from both sides. Good luck with your future weight loss and/or health maintenance.

  9. Dominica

    Not wanting to stir the pot, but I just want to comment that what and how others eat does affect everyone. In looking at the big picture, the more unhealthy, synthetic, preservative ridden, “guilt free” foods people eat, the more likely they are to have health problems down the road. The more doctors visits, prescriptions, surgeries, diseases etc. they will have. This only leads to increased health care costs for everyone. You can have a cupcake made from real (hopefully organic) ingredients and still maintain your weight and health. Sites like Let There Be Bite help people do this. Enjoy good, quality food and indulge in moderation.

  10. Beatrice

    Whenever I tried the food discussed in this thread I always felt sick. This food is awful, it tastes of chemicals or, at best, of nothing. Why should anybody want to eat large portions of awful food is a mystery, to me.

  11. albgardis

    Dominica hits it right on the spot: people who eat these artificial things only think they eat healthy, because a certain industry is feeding them that info. That industry wants to sell their stuff, and they DON’T pay for the future health issues of their customers. No, you, the customer (the eater) will end up with these costs (be it literally for treaments or figuratively for poor health later in your life).

    I am an immigrant from Germany, and when I came here 8 years ago, I was a bit stunned about how different the values of food are here. Basically the whole definitions of what is actually healthy and what is unhealthy are completely upside down from Europe. Just the fact that a processed artificial food product has no fat or no sugar DOES NOT make it healthy at all. Just the opposite.

    The human body has developed over millenia, and our metabolism is used to deal with sugar, carbs and fat. If you take in too much you’ll get fat, sure, but that is all what happens. BUT when you eat these artificial sweeteners or artificially “whipped” or “creamed” items (that fool your tongue chemically by IMPERSONATING fat particles!), our body systems cannot deal with that on the long run. Your digestive organs for example will have errors, and that will have serious consequenses later. It would take too much space here, but it is known since the 70s that using artificial sweeteners will “breed” a form of diabetes. Completely unnecessary!

    But I guess since the same companies who are selling you this crap are also having pharmaceutical departments, they will be happy to sell you your medication later in life!

    The same pattern goes with certain cleaning products causing allergies (same corporations first cause your allergy and then will cater you their allergy products, what a coincidence…), but that is another issue.

    I am definitely giving in sometimes when I’d like a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream.But I would never eat these artificial diet meals ever! This stuff is just toxic! Only because nobody drops dead right away they are getting away with selling it.

    It is not expensive at all to eat good (natural!!) foods! And you don’t even have to go organic all the time, conventional is hundred times better than artificial and processed.

    I know I won’t convinvce anyone who was raised in this country, as it sits too deep. Many grew up like this and their mothers were already brainwashed into serving processed foods. But it is never too late! You can stop today and just eat more of the natural foods. Since the saturation is so much higher than that of artificial products, you actually won’t need as much anyway. So thinking in huge portion sizes is not helpful, you won’t need that at all when you eat good natural foods.

    The mediterranian diet for example is very healthy, and it is by far NOT fat free. But when you are using a good olive oil (only extra vergine from Italy, never anything else!), good legumes, you are on a good start. I am a vegetarian, but even if you are not, you can have so much better options for eating healthy delicious meals than eating these artificial products. And no, olive oils makes you NOT fat, really not!

    But it goes too far here to explain that. If you really want to eat healthy and keep your weight, please learn about the mediterranian diet and educate yourself in where to obtain the really good ingredients. You can even mail order them, if you live outside the metropolitan areas. The best meals have few ingredients!

    To put it very short and simple at the end: if you can’t pronounce the ingredients in a food item, you don’t want to put that in your body!

  12. Jim

    I love to cook, and I am committed to cooking the most healthful and nutritious foods for my wife and myself. Over the past year, we re-committed ourselves to getting in shape through sustainable lifestyle changes, and as we enter our sixth decades on earth friends and family comment on how great we look and how vibrant we seem. When we meet strangers, they often think we’re in our mid-30s. None of this is to brag — we experienced the typical middle-aged weight gain — but I think I have a pretty good idea of what foods are conducive to maintaining proper weight, towards avoiding endocrine dysfunction, and averting cardio-vascular disease.

    And I can say that Ms. Lillien’s Hungry Girl ain’t that. This program is perhaps the worst abomination passing itself off as either “cooking” or allegedly “healthful.” I literally cannot stand to watch it for more than 10 seconds. I think 10 seconds may be the actual record before I change the channel, averting my eyes and screaming “stop the pain, stop the pain!”

    But there is money to be made selling this silliness. God bless America.

  13. Sophia Manthei

    Jane. I loved reading this. I love people who stand up to HG and tell her shes doing wrong. All the fake sugar, all the chemicals, all the freaking ingredients that go into ONE MEAL!! I used to LOVE Splenda, but after realizing it was making me crave sugar laden food all the time I stopped eating it. I also stopped eating real sugar. I’m currently on the Low Carb diet and its working wonders. I’m 21 years old and went from 128 lbs to 123 in only 2 days. Yes its probably water but you have to lose water before you lose the real fat.
    It pisses me off how Lisa Lillien bashes on Atkins and is happy that they are going bankrupt. She also said his products tasted gross. They DON’T taste gross at all. And his theory is correct. I’m full all the time. If you make HG recipes your hungry ALL THE TIME!!!! and eventually your just going to go nuts and break down and eat everything in sight. I have all HG’s books. Big mistake. Her wording is very immature and down right annoying with alot of exclamation marks. HG is not educated obviously and just wants to make as much money as she can. Partnering with all these brands.. ughhh makes me so mad. She’s not even thin.

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