“Hungry Girl’s” tips for guilt-free eating…and building an info empire

Few phrases perk up the ears and whet the appetite like "100-calorie pasta Alfredo," one of internet sensation and Food Network star Lisa Lillien's nifty culinary inventions. Lillien, a.k.a Hungry Girl, is a mad scientist of the supermarket whose particular genius is using readily available foods to create satisfying meals with the same calorie count as say, a bowl of plain, low-fat cottage cheese.

Lillien's Hungry Girl newsletter, which offers recipes, tips, and resources for healthier eating, has over 1.1 million subscribers. Before Hungry Girl, she had never actually worked in the food industry. "I have universal taste buds," she says, "and a knack for making food at home that tastes super fattening but isn't." She was working developing websites for Warner Brothers when the idea for Hungry Girl popped into her head. "I wanted to create a fun, sassy umbrella brand for guilt-free eating that came from a regular person, not a doctor or dietician. And I wanted to make it a free daily email service so the content could be delivered in a very personal way."

In 2004, with the help of a freelance designer, she created the newsletter at her "kitchen table in sweatpants" and invited one hundred friends to join. In six months, she had a 10,000 subscribers, and in a year, 50,000. She gradually took on advertisers who she thought were the right fit. She believes that "the great thing about the Internet is that if your content is good, it will be shared and rise to the top." Now, Lillien leads a team of 12 employees who assist her in developing fresh ideas for the newsletter as well as for her television show and best-selling books such as the recently released Hungry Girl Supermarket Survival.

A big part of Lillien's appeal is how relatable she is. "I spent the early part of my adult life yo-yo dieting," she says. "I'd lose and gain the same 15 pounds." Eventually, she gave up refined carbs for about a year and lost more than twenty pounds. She credits Weight Watchers for helping her learn how to incorporate forbidden foods such as pasta and white rice back into her diet in a sensible way. Now she follows the "80/20 rule"-eating mindfully 80 percent of time, and "eating the most fun, decadent food I can get my hands on," for the remaining 20 percent.

Lillien says her goal is to help people "make better choices and discoveries at the grocery story and take baby steps in the right direction," without feeling deprived. She feels that more extreme dictates such as eating vegan or buying all organic don't resonate with the average American. And besides, as she points out, "Even if you shop at Whole Foods, you can still get fat off an organic brownie."

Lillien's favorite swaps and tips from the new Hungry Girl Supermarket Survival guide:

  • Unsweetened vanilla almond milk instead of skim milk. This swap cuts half the calories, adds twice the flavor.
  • Substitute a can of pumpkin puree for eggs or oil when baking. Pumpkin is high in fiber and low in calories and fat. And it's all-natural.
  • Tofu shirataki instead of pasta. Lillien calls this noodle from Japan "the discovery of the century." Low in calories and carbs, toss it with a wedge of Laughing Cow Light Cheese to make 100-calorie pasta Alfredo.
  • Faux frying. Use Fiber One Original Bran Cereal instead of breadcrumbs to dredge chicken or fish, then bake.
  • Bagged frozen vegetables bulk up frozen entrees. There is plenty of sauce to go around!
  • Salsa replaces salad dressing. It's got a ton of flavor, is low in calories, and typically fat-free.
  • Try soy crumbles instead of ground beef in almost any recipe. She says, "I'm a meat-eater and like beef but I save calories when I can."
  • Laughing Cow Light Cheese can substitute for cream cheese and other fatty cheeses. It's a magical ingredient for sauces, dips, and egg dishes!
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