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Hungry Girl: Defying the Laws of Physics (or not)

June 27, 2012

I’ve had this post in my to-do list for ages now, ever since I watched a few episodes of Hungry Girl on television with my room-mate and co-author, S.L. Armstrong. Now, we watch a lot of food-based television, mostly because S.L. loves cooking. There are shows we like (Nigella Lawson comes to mind), and there are shows we decidedly don’t. One of the latter is Hungry Girl, and there are many reasons why. The premise of the show is simple: by substituting foods and altering preparation techniques, you can trick yourself into eating fewer calories and, therefore, lose weight. Sounds like a relatively reasonable concept, of course, but there are SO many things wrong with this show.

First and foremost, the host, Lisa Lillien is not a nutritionist. She’s the first to admit as much, and she actually uses this as a marketing ploy to entice people, saying she’s ‘just like the rest of us’. The problem? Not being a nutritionist means she has no training, no clue what any of her tips and tricks actually do to the body, much less the long-term complications that can arise from her kind of dieting. She’s not a professional, and my first issue, therefore, is her giving advice and acting like she’s some guru of nutrition, when she doesn’t even understand the basic principles of food and the way the human body reacts to it. I just don’t buy it, and I don’t think viewers should either. Without that experience and expertise to back her up, she’s just spouting off things that aren’t necessarily healthy, all while fat-shaming her target audience nearly every five minutes she’s on the air.

This brings me to the fun part of the post. Lisa Lillien’s tips are truly special, and I mean this sincerely. It’s not every day you watch a cooking show that tries to defy the laws of physics. Remember what I said about her having no nutrition background whatsoever? (And no, having eaten every day for a few decades doesn’t make you a nutrition expert.) This is where it really shines! Let me hit a few of the basics that Hungry Girl doesn’t get right:

  • “This almost triples your serving size!” – Chopping things up doesn’t mean you get more. Adding more water so the preparation puffs starches up to twice the ‘bulk’ doesn’t mean you get more. All it means is you’re having more water with it. You’re not adding content; you’re adding water. There’s a difference. Most of the ‘tricks’ shown by Lillien don’t actually change the serving size. They just make the food look bulkier to trick you into thinking you’re eating more when you aren’t. Your stomach isn’t that stupid. It knows you’re still not eating much, and it’s good at passing that message along to your brain.
  • “The fewer calories you eat, the better everything will be.” – This is the basis for the whole show, but it’s such a false premise! But hey, you don’t want to be ‘Jabba the Hutt’, as Lisa Lillien puts it. You don’t want to be fat because, OHMYGOD, if you get fat your life is over, right? Let’s subscribe to every nutrition myth out there in order to appeal to the misconception that thinner is always better. Don’t you know that the beauty myth isn’t a myth but a strong physical and psychological need that should be catered to? Come on. Seriously? Restriction is a dangerous dietary practice, and one that needs to be done with care and consideration. Cutting out an entire food group isn’t the best idea. Saying something is only X amount of calories and the lower the better doesn’t cut it. The calories aren’t the only thing you should be looking at. A lot of the foods Lillien suggests be cut whenever possible carry important nutrients along with them. Watch out, Lillien, your lack of degree is showing here.
  • “Using artificial substitutes drops more calories and makes food healthier without altering the taste!” – Straight up bullshit, my friends. You cannot convince me that a bean-burger or portabello mushroom tastes the same as a hamburger made with ground beef (even lean ground beef). Guacamole made with peas won’t taste the same as guacamole made with avocados, and avocados are actually healthier, packed with the good fats your body needs. No-calorie sweeteners, fat-free non-dairy creamer, fat-free whipped cream? The assumption that these things can mimic their counterparts is completely unrealistic. They act differently in the preparation, and they do taste different. Some people can handle that difference, and more power to them, but most of us would prefer the real thing, and we don’t need to be shamed for enjoying it just because it bumps the calories up a bit.
  • “I wake up screaming when I dream of making fatty food choices, and you should, too!” – Oh, dear lord, the insulting the way this woman talks about food. It’s like she truly believes everyone who enjoys their morning latte is going to get fat and should be horrified by their choices and feel ashamed for not eating the way she does. Everyone is different in both their dietary habits and their dietary needs. Some people need more protein in their diets. Some are lactose intolerant. Some have food allergies. All these things alter the balance of their diet and the way they have to go about making up for deficiencies in their eating habits. The best choice here isn’t to be ashamed and start dieting how an unqualified woman on the television tells you. If you’re really concerned, do research and go speak to a professional. Yes, you’ll have to find a nutritionist who has experience and meshes well with you as an individual, but chances are they’re going to do a better job than someone like Lisa Lillien, who only pretends to know what she’s talking about.

Ultimately, there’s a reason Lisa Lillien is the only one with a show like Hungry Girl on the air. If all we got when we tuned into cooking shows was bullshit like this that is aimed to make us all feel ashamed for what we eat and how we eat it, we would never watch the channel. People enjoy learning about preparation, but they don’t like being shamed into low-calorie dieting at every turn. Following Hungry Girl’s suggestions all the time—which is basically the ideal that is being aspired to in the show—is essentially very dangerous. All the artificial foods are just as dangerous to your health, especially because, in many cases, they’re being used as crutches so you don’t have to eat other foods that are nutritionally dense. Nutritionally dense usually also means calorie dense; that’s just the way it works with certain vitamins and minerals. Her way, your only concern is cutting calories. In reality, missing out on carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in order to cut calories can be some of the most harming behavior in dieting. Starving yourself by making drastic calorie cuts will also destroy your metabolism, which is why you usually end up depending on stimulant-laden fare just to keep your energy up (because you’re constantly starving).

Am I being harsh? Yes, and I’m the first to admit it. But when I see a show like this getting so popular and viewers praising what nutritionally breaks down to really bad advice, there is little that upsets me more. In the wake of several posts and comments I’ve read recently about larger men and women in fiction as well as larger men and women as writers, I couldn’t help but think back to this blog post I’d drafted a while back. Polishing it up has just made me realize how much it needs to go up here. You’ll never hear me call a reviewer a ‘cow’, as if his/her size has anything to do with their opinions on my work. You’ll never hear me say I won’t read anything from an author I know is larger than I am. You’ll never see rampant fat-shaming prose spewed out in my books. Why? Because, in the end, I think my job as a writer and as a human being in general is to spread as much love and enjoyment as possible. Shows like Hungry Girl take the exact opposite approach, concentrating on what they view as negatives and exposing viewers to hateful material, all in the hopes of eliciting shame so people will follow advice from someone unqualified to professionally give it.

That just isn’t my bag, baby. When I see shows like this one, I go for the remote. I just hope I’m not the only one! Do any of you have shows that you dislike on television? Tell me about them in the comments!

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 7:23 pm

    We have many talks in this household about size, food, dieting, and mental images of ourselves. I mean, just today as you walked out to pick up food, what did I say? ‘I feel sick.’ You: ‘You haven’t eaten, of course you feel sick.’ Me: ‘I had a glass of juice!’ And that’s the mentality of many people my size! We’re told to drink two shakes a day and eat one sensible meal. Skip breakfast, have cottage cheese for lunch, and 12oz of chicken for supper. Don’t eat carbs. Don’t eat sugar. Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat.

    It’s hurtful. It’s terribly hurtful, and I just wish this world would be more about accepting people as they are rather than trying to shoehorn everyone into the same mold while telling their children everyone is unique. *sighs*

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