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How Hungry Girl shed the pounds without guilt

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, November 18, 2012 - 12:01 am

LOS ANGELES — 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 chili fries — and eat them, too, without getting fat.

No, 10 years ago, Lisa Lillien says, she was just another 30-something LA "Hungry Girl." Someone who needed to drop 15 or 20 pounds 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 the trim but not skinny Lillien who presides over a multimillion-dollar empire of Hungry Girl cookbooks, low-calorie recipes, specialty 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 like pizza, spaghetti, cookies and cake in the name of better health.

Neither is Lillien, who likes to joke there was a time when she'd climb over a table to steal a companion's french fries.

These days she just remakes them — and a thousand other foods.

Her baked potato skins, for example, are really made out of zucchini stuffed with low-calorie cheese and bacon flavoring.

She bakes her chili-cheese fries and uses butternut squash, not potatoes. They clock in at 268 calories, about a quarter the amount in traditional fries.

Recipes for those and other feel-good foods like lasagna, pizza and spongecake have placed Lillien atop a brand that has grown phenomenally in the eight years since the former TV executive came up with the name (it just popped into her head one day) and blasted a daily email to 75 people.

Today, 1.2 million subscribers get a mix of recipes, advice and ads for food companies like Star Kist and General Mills, whose products she endorses.

Lillien, who started the business at home, now oversees a staff of 12 at a sprawling office in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

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. Cans of soup, packages of nuts, bowls of chips and other ingredients are stacked here and there. On one wall, a silk-screen depicts a can of Campbell's Soup, with Dino the dinosaur from "The Flintstones" TV show, on the label.

It's here that 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 her seven books, which have sold more than 2.5 million copies, according to her publisher, St. Martin's Press. Her latest, "Hungry Girl to the Max: The Ultimate Guilt-Free Cookbook," debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for paperback advice books last month.

Although food bloggers sometimes snipe about her recipes being as low in nutritional value as they are in calories, Matthew Shear, St. Martin's executive vice president, says she "speaks to an audience that loves to eat and is looking for a way to eat the things they love at a fraction of the calories."

That audience, he adds, includes himself. He professes to be a big fan of her Lord of the Onion Rings recipe (155 calories) and her various mug cake desserts (you microwave them in a mug).

Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian 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 dietitian or a nutritionist actually gives her more credibility with her audience, which realizes 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.