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, Lillien says.
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.
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.
The recipes she whips up can be found on her Food Network and Cooking Channel TV shows.
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."