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  • Are We A “Hungry Girl” Nation?

    HungryGirlI’m sure you’ve seen the perfectly coifed, sparkling-teeth caricature somewhere.  Perhaps a bookstore.  Or a container of “Hungry Girl approved” yogurt.  You may even subscribe to her newsletter.

    Hungry Girl (real name Lisa Lillien) has been a full-fledged nutrition star for several years.

    Her fans — and there are many of them, as evidenced by her books reaching the top of the New York Times bestseller list — point to her relatability as one factor behind her success.

    Ms. Lillien is not a nutritionist or dietitian.  She is not a doctor, nor is she the star of a basic cable reality show.  She’s simply a woman who lost 30 pounds several years ago, and wanted to share her story — and recipes — with the world.  Soon enough, her subscriber list exploded to half a million people, and food companies learned that a recommendation of one of their products from Hungry Girl equaled big sales.

    I know some Registered Dietitans who see Hungry Girl in a favorable light and publicly support her work.

    While I certainly don’t hold any animosity towards her prototypical “everyday dieter” persona, I truly worry about what her rampant success means.

    Sure, she does not employ the word “skinny” anywhere in her message (the whole “skinny this, skinny that” trend in nutrition books and diet plans is so tired it’s comatose), but Hungry Girl epitomizes Frankenfood dieting.

    Her hyper-popular recipes (featured in books like “200 [Recipes] Under 200 [Calories]“) tend to center around “Franken-gredients” like fat-free whipped cream, sugar-free syrups, and artificial sweeteners.

    There is no emphasis on health.  It’s not about cooking vegetables in a tasty sauce, eating healthier fats, or whipping up quick and simple recipes rich in phytonutrients and fiber.  It’s simply about the calories.

    As one colleague of mine brilliantly remarked when discussing this issue with me, it emphasizes the erroneous idea that nutrition equals weight management.

    Granted, Ms. Lillien does not profess to be a health expert.  “I’m just hungry,” is her trademark response.

    These, however, are the main things that I dislike about the Hungry Girl phenomenon:

    • The often-repeated “guilt-free” idea.  What makes a bowl of strawberries with Splenda and sugar-free syrup less “guilt-inducing” than a Lara bar?  And why must we always associate guilt with great-tasting food?  This goes well beyond the scope of this post, but why is it so hard for some people to realize that there are plenty of decadent, delicious, healthy foods?  Why the “either or” mentality?
    • The allusion that healthy eating is not tasty.  The unspoken idea behind a lot of the recipes is that they are not necessarily mega-healthy, but they are tasty and low in calories (because apparently “healthy” and “tasty” are opposites?)
    • The idea that the only way to lose weight successfully is through artificial sweeteners, chemically-laden processed food, and foods that didn’t exist thirty years ago.  Fat and sugar substitutes proceeded rising obesity rates!
    • The perpetuated gender stereotype that it is solely women who care about weight loss, and have “uncontrollable” sweet tooth urges that must be indulged ever so carefully (again, an issue way beyond the scope of this post, but still worth mentioning)

    Agree?  Disagree?  Want to add a new angle to the discussion?  Please comment!

    Share

    23 Comments

    1. Marianne said on April 17th, 2010

      I’ve seen her cookbooks mentioned on many a blog, and I took a look at them in the bookstore, but as soon as I saw they were full of recipes with splenda and the like, I put them back on the shelf, knowing I could spend my cookbook “allowance” on something that advocated food as opposed to food substitutes. I would rather enjoy real whipped cream on occasion, than fat-free whipped topping every night.

    2. Kate said on April 17th, 2010

      The emphasis on artificial sweeteners, fats, etc., is why I ultimately unsubscribed to the HG newsletter. I do appreciate that she gives nutrition information about fast food etc., and in that sense I think she does a service by possibly getting that information to people who might otherwise not have it.

    3. Katie said on April 17th, 2010

      Definitely agree!

    4. Anna said on April 17th, 2010

      I agree with you the the food being touted by “Hungry Girl” isn’t healthy; though it IS healthier than the alternative that most of her followers would have reached for. This is where the “guilt-free” comes in to play. In addition, the portion size of the recipe might help followers as well!
      The “HG” empire does a great job of pointing out calories in commercial food from restaurants/on the shelf/etc in an “eat this… not that” manner.
      I also think that the connection to food companies bring the “Average Joe” into the equation. The ingredients and products in “HG” recipes are recognizable and often cost cutting or time saving. Hello, America! One example has been the relationship with Fiber One.. who knew there were so many things to do with breakfast cereal!
      Thanks!
      Anna

    5. MM said on April 17th, 2010

      People are beginning to wake up and starting to avoid processed, artificial foods and sweeteners. A lot of her recipes look so “90′s” and look absolutely disgusting to me. You couldn’t pay me to make them for myself or my kids.

    6. Leah McGrath, RD, LDN said on April 17th, 2010

      So I think you have already hit the nail on the head. Lisa is not a dietitian or nutritionist. She does not pretend to be a nutrition “expert” as some who write cookbooks, appear in media etc do and meanwhile put out erroneous messages about health and nutrition. She is savvy at marketing her brand and she has obviously corrrectly identified a demographic that responds to her message about finding food that satisfies that is lower in calories – mostly geared to the perennial dieter. IMO dietitians would do well to take notice of how she markets her message, not to copy her but to see what she is doing that works and what we are doing that does not!

    7. Kristin Conroy said on April 17th, 2010

      I think Hungry Girl is not doing anyone any favors with the food lifestyle she supports. The biggest problem with this country is going for “diet” food that’s totally artificial, and some people think they are doing the right thing consuming fat-free and fake sugar food. We need to understand what Frankenfood does to our bodies and quality of life. We are meant to eat food from the earth, not processed stuff from a box or bag. I hope we all get the message soon.

    8. Sheri said on April 17th, 2010

      I got her book as a gift and like you, I noticed that all the ingredients are processed! You may loose weight from following the recipes as everything is low or no fat but really there seems to be no nutritional value in the ingredients :(

    9. Courtney said on April 17th, 2010

      I did follow her as a substitute for the few processed foods I did eat, but stopped after reading this issue of her newsletter downplaying the importance of organic foods:

      http://www.hungry-girl.com/askhg/askhgdetails.php?isid=1911

      It was a realization that, although I was ~70lbs overweight and ate organically, it really was the choices of what I ate and how much I really needed. Labs don’t make better or healthier foods than nature. Now I just make smarter choices like eating keema atop stirfried cabbage rather than basmati rice.

      (And BTW, I’m down 45 of those 70lbs without use of the “Frankenfood”)

    10. Alicia said on April 17th, 2010

      Bravo! I agree with everything you wrote. But I don’t eat Frankenfood either. I will say my friends all think I am the weird one. It will be very interesting to read what others think about this.

    11. MM said on April 17th, 2010

      I should provide an example of some dessert ingredients that horrified me:

      Ingredients:
      3 tbsp. Splenda No Calorie Sweetener (granulated), divided
      2 tsp. cinnamon, divided
      2 tbsp. light whipped butter or light buttery spread (like Brummel & Brown)
      2 tbsp. sugar-free pancake syrup
      2 tbsp. brown sugar (not packed)
      1 package Pillsbury Crescent Recipe Creations Seamless Dough Sheet
      1/2 tsp. baking powder

    12. Blake said on April 17th, 2010

      Really bugs me too that people think that healthy food can’t taste good. If people ate more healthy foods they might actually figure that out. People think of health food as just a leaf of lettuce and that’s it.

      My wife and I aren’t perfect, but we try to cook good, healthy meals every night and set a good example to our daughter. People are shocked that our 13 month old likes green beans, asparagus, and fruits, etc.

      Love your posts. Always great reads.

    13. Amy said on April 18th, 2010

      I’ve heard of her, but I’ve never read any of her recipes. The one MM wrote about earlier is gag inducing, to say the least. Anyway, I agree with you 100%. People need to understand that eating fresh, natural, delicious, unprocessed food will *eventually* lead to a smaller waistline and a healthier body, overall. My motto is: eat for health, not skinny jeans. (Splenda and sugar-free pancake syrup? WTF? Ugh, seriously, I am gagging.)

    14. Annie Fries said on April 18th, 2010

      What bugs me is that you people who are posting on her don’t really know or understand Hungry Girl at all. Lisa always says that she eats mostly lean meats, fish, veggies and fruits, and mixes some packaged foods in like pretty much everyone else in the world does. A lot of the HungryGirl recipes contain easy to find supermarket foods to help keep them fast and easy and the recipes are for foods that if you ate the real fattening versions of, would be way worse for you. Hungry Girl is doing a service to millions of people, and she is helping us become less obese. She is a God send! Those of you out there saying negative things need to get off your high horses and pay attention to the facts. Without Hungry Girl I would not have lost 78 lbs. She saved my life. So get your facts straight before you start hating on someone that should be a hero to us in this country.

    15. Lauren said on April 18th, 2010

      I think this is a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing this information with us. I am currently a Dietetic Intern (2 months to go!) and am usually so frustrated that people SO OFTEN equate nutrition to weight management/loss. My passion for this field is in helping others realize how to eat foods that are great for their bodies and their health in realistic ways. I do not know much about Hungry Girl so I am not speaking about her so much as the general idea that so many of us have the wrong mind set. Won’t it be nice when there’s a day people share the mind set that a healthy lifestyle is not about deprivation, feeling guilt free, and sneaking in dessert but rather taking pride and enjoying the nutritious foods available to us?

    16. Lara (Thinspired) said on April 19th, 2010

      I COMPLETELY agree with you on this one! I stopped subscribing to her newsletter years ago, when her food concoctions just got ridiculously insane and processed. Also, her selling out to all these food companies is such a turn off (Fiber One, who’s bars have HFCS and a bunch of other crap, as well as Shirataki noodles). Thanks for this post, Andy.

    17. Rosey said on April 19th, 2010

      I subscribed to HG for a long time. I think she’s a good go-between – someone who can help people start to make changes in their diets that aren’t so big that they’re scary, and who says you can still eat food you like if it’s made with different ingredients.

      I appreciate that she posts calorie counts for restaurant foods. I still remember FREAKING OUT when I realized Jamba Juice smoothies were 450 calories for one of the small, “healthy” ones. I was traveling all the time and thought I was getting something healthy at airports.

      That said, I unsubscribed once I realized that every recipe swap used multiple processed foods. Added fiber is really hard on my digestive system, and her complete reliance on Fiber One cereal in every snack food was just too hard to get past. Now I just eat an apple when I’m hungry.

    18. susan said on April 20th, 2010

      I’m with you! I used to subscribed to her newsletter…but that was also when I was following the “points” system with Weight Watchers. You know, you can eat two fat free hot dogs for only 2 points!

      It seemed to me as though the emphasis in her newsletters was on desserts made with fake ingredients. I think even Fiber One has artificial sweetener in it. I don’t think eating a lot of artificial sweetener is doing anything but ruin people’s taste buds. Once I stopped drinking diet soda and using artificial sweetener, my taste buds returned to normal and I found that I didn’t need sugar in oatmeal anymore, and many commercially made products taste way too sweet to me now.

    19. Amy said on April 23rd, 2010

      I COMPLETELY agree with you on this one! I stopped subscribing to her newsletter years ago, when her food concoctions just got ridiculously insane and processed. Also, her selling out to all these food companies is such a turn off (Fiber One, who’s bars have HFCS and a bunch of other crap, as well as Shirataki noodles). Thanks for this post, Andy.

    20. Rick said on April 24th, 2010

      I COMPLETELY agree with you on this one! I stopped subscribing to her newsletter years ago, when her food concoctions just got ridiculously insane and processed. Also, her selling out to all these food companies is such a turn off (Fiber One, who’s bars have HFCS and a bunch of other crap, as well as Shirataki noodles). Thanks for this post, Andy.

    21. Jeff said on April 24th, 2010

      I think this is a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing this information with us. I am currently a Dietetic Intern (2 months to go!) and am usually so frustrated that people SO OFTEN equate nutrition to weight management/loss. My passion for this field is in helping others realize how to eat foods that are great for their bodies and their health in realistic ways. I do not know much about Hungry Girl so I am not speaking about her so much as the general idea that so many of us have the wrong mind set. Won’t it be nice when there’s a day people share the mind set that a healthy lifestyle is not about deprivation, feeling guilt free, and sneaking in dessert but rather taking pride and enjoying the nutritious foods available to us?

    22. sarah said on April 26th, 2012

      ooohhh im so happy you addressed this!!! my mother is pre diabetic and looks up to her and her recipes/endorsements! especially the stupid vitatop muffins (some that contain approx 12g of sugar – more than half the reccomended amount for women). Not the kind of things a 56 year old obese and pre diabetic woman should eat but do you know how hard it is to convince my mom that eating vegetables are actually DELICIOUS and once you cut out added sugars / processed foods you wont crave them and need a “vitatop fix”. GRRR it disgusts me and Ive sent “hungry girl” emails too (which of course she never responds to).

    23. Anna said on August 10th, 2012

      I don’t have a problem with Hungry Girl at all. Everyone has to decide what is right and best for himself. Hungry Girl never claimed to be an advocate for healthy nutritional meals. She simply shows ways to substitute lower calorie versions of many comfort foods. You don’t have to use her recipes on a daily basis. I am also a calorie counter. I eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies and other healthy things, but I also eat artificial sweeteners and other processed foods. It’s MY preference to combine healthy eating with low calorie eating for weight management because it is a plan that works for me. I LOVE fast food/ comfort foods and desserts… I just do, and I have to find good substitutes for these things or else I will fail. I tried for years to eat healthy foods and would do okay for a short time and then start back to my old habits. Now I have lost 60 pounds, exercise several times a week and have stuck with my diet plan for over a year and am confident that I can continue with this lifestyle change indefinitely. Blogs like HungryGirl are beneficial to people like me. I don’t remember ever making more than one or two of her recipes, but since she is a calorie counter, I totally understand her deal. Websites like her’s are only one source of many that I use to collect information to develop a diet plan that works and meets my daily lifestyle needs. it is up to an individual to decide what information to seek and how to apply it. It is not the blog that is the issue… You are just an advocate for healthy eating. I would have rather seen a statement recognizing the benefits of having low calorie meals to indulge in on occasion while still pointing out that low calorie does not equate to healthy… And maybe even discuss some good sources of healthy recipes and diet tips because HungryGirl isn’t the problem.

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