By: Alison Barkman, MS, RD
The article "Hungry Girl's rise: She's the Queen of calorie counting" (Philadelphia Daily News, 7/13) is a classic example of non-dietitians handing out nutrition advice. The mastermind behind Hungry Girl is Lisa Lillien, and as the first line of her bio reads on her website www.hungry-girl.com: "I'm not a nutritionist, I'm just hungry." It reads on to confess her struggle with weight and obsession with food and dieting. Hungry Girl was born out of her daily struggles to keep the weight off and stop feeling hungry.
The website provides a cornucopia of food and nutrition advice. A weight-conscious web surfer can discover weekend dinner reservation survival, the latest nutrition news, and find advice on foods to "bite" or "fight" under her "Chew the Right Thing" tab. Her blog launched her into blog-stardom including a book titled 200 Under 200, featuring 200 recipes under 200 calories, plus her "Hungry Girl Approved" logo plastered all over products like Yoplait Fiber One Yogurt.
As a registered dietitian (RD), I am not opposed to all of Hungry Girl’s advice. I do feel it is important to differentiate the professionally-trained RD from a person who has battled with weight issues. I also want to address Hungry Girl’s recent comment in yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News article:
"Most of the information about eating better is brought by nutritionists or dieticians, and it's not fun [or] realistic and relatable," Lillien said. "I wanted to create a brand in this space that would address every woman's needs."
She's right on one thing: most information about healthy eating is provided by dietitians because that is our profession. The part about dietitians' advice being "not fun [or] realistic and relatable" is absolutely untrue. Dietitians are like any other health practitioner. If a client feels they are not getting the best advice, then get a second opinion.
I am a registered dietitian (RD) and will be the first to say, sure, some RDs may give tips that are too strict to follow and don't connect well with their clients' needs. The key to being a great RD is to listen and truly understand your client's needs, lifestyle and constant barriers to self-improvement. If a client comes from a lifetime of eating processed and fast food, it is unrealistic to expect they will suddenly start buying organic and preparing every meal on their own. There are many RDs that listen to their client and make practical, realistic suggestions of how they can slowly change their diet while enjoying all types of foods, even the ones most label as "bad". Plus, many RDs have battled with their own weight issues. What could be better than seeking advice from not only a professional, but someone who’s been in your shoes as well?
Hungry Girl does endorse many packaged foods. I see two sides to this. First, we live in a hectic world and don't have time every day to prepare meals from scratch. Sometimes it's helpful to have a packaged food as an on-the-go snack or a side dish to a healthy dinner. On the flip side, some diet-hungry people may see Hungry Girl's recommendations as a "green light" to fill their cabinets with tons of processed foods. Not a good idea. If your goal is to avoid inflammation that leads to heart disease, diabetes, and tons of other nasty diseases, your daily diet should include a higher percentage of fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, rather than packaged goods like 100-calorie packs of cookies or Fiber One bars. Including packaged foods on occasion (approximately 1x/day or less) is better than on a regular basis (2x or more per day, every day).
200 Under 200 is Hungry Girl's cookbook with 200 recipes under 200 calories. Each recipe provides a breakdown of nutritional information, plus Weight Watcher's points. I glanced at some of the recipes listed on her website. The recipes seem like any other healthy cookbook recipe: she takes a classic favorite that is usually high fat and calorie, and turns it into a healthy alternative. Definitely a help to those looking for new ideas in the kitchen while keeping healthy.
My concern is that all recipes are 200 calories or less. Nutrition advice such as how many calories to eat per day is very specific to each individual. Questions one must consider include: age, gender, activity level, diseases or medical conditions, medications, height, and weight to name a few. Snacks are usually fine at 100-200 calories, but meals that are 200 calories or less may be dangerously low. Using the white cheese pizza recipe listed on the ww.hungry-girl.com website, this pizza is said to have 176 calories. I would recommend eating that with some cooked vegetables or a salad with a little extra "umph" to it like beans or 1-2 sliced eggs to help you feel more satisfied rather than be a "hungry girl" a couple of hours later. This pizza is also noted to have 3g fat, 29g carbohydrates and 19g protein. Just glancing at this macronutrient profile and knowing how to calculate calories, it seems to me this pizza may really be closer to 220 calories.
Now you might be thinking, Hungry Girl writes about food recommendations, healthy recipes; many of the same things one can find on this Food Chat blog and other blogs by RDs. Here's the difference: RDs can offer healthy eating suggestions and break down the science behind it. We are not just looking at calories. Not all calories are created equal. Hungry Girl is perfectly harmless and offers some great suggestions; however, if you are truly confused about eating, Hungry Girl is just another Nutri-System or Jenny Craig. If you cut calories, you will lose weight. Cut and dry. But will you ever really learn how to eat properly? Most likely, no. That is why some surveys show approximately 80 percent of those who lose weight following a diet gain most or all of it back within one year (Dr. L. Aronne, excerpt from: The Skinny on Losing Weight without Being Hungry).
Another danger to those seeking nutritional advice from non-dietitians out there with weight loss plans, books, and crazy dieting notions is that disease is serious. Most people looking to lose weight are already pre-diabetic or well on their way to developing heart disease. A diabetic or heart patient needs much more than just some low-calorie food suggestions. They need to understand their disease and how food can work with or against the body in healing. An RD has a bachelor's, if not a master's degree, in nutrition, plus a heavy science background to fully comprehend what happens to food once it has entered the body. We complete an internship with clinical-intensive rotations in hospitals, long-term care, dialysis centers and more areas to understand the full scope of medical nutrition therapy. All of this must be done in order to sit for the RD board exam. Once we become an RD, we are continuously expected to learn and earn credits to maintain our credentials, or else we lose them.
Of course I can't write this without going off on my exercise rant. A reader of the Hungry Girl article posted this comment:
"Here's an idea...eat healthy and exercise...minimize intake of processed food."
I couldn't have said it better! Many looking to lose weight are looking for the next magic bullet; something that will make it oh-so-easy. I had a client who was seeing me for months come in one day with the Fat Smash Diet book by Dr. Ian Smith (from VH1's Celebrity Fit Club) and asked me what I thought. I took a deep breath and smiled. Had she been listening to me at all the last few months? Sure, you can lose weight on this diet. But why is she always avoiding exercise? And why don't people learn from their last fad diet that you will only lose and regain? Losing weight and staying healthy is HARD WORK. There is no way around it. The more support you can get from family, friends, and health professionals, the better. And exercise is an unavoidable key to weight loss, weight loss maintenance and life-long health. Not souped-up high fiber cereal bars, detox elixirs or colon-flushes.
Okay, I'm settled down now. Back to Hungry Girl. I'm not knocking her down. Business is business. I'm a public relations person myself and love all the marketing, social media glitz that's out there. Hungry Girl is obviously a marketing-savvy diva because what she's doing is gaining followers and getting RDs like me to blog about it! And publicity, whether positive or negative, is publicity!
All I am saying it to be careful who you get nutrition advice from. It's like bumping into a yo-yo dieter in the supermarket who tells you to go for the fat-free cookies or the personal trainer who says if you eat grapefruit you'll get a speedy metabolism. Always ask yourself what is most important to you. Is it just losing weight? Or is it learning how to eat properly for the rest of your life and why certain foods are better for you than others?
Remember, virtually anyone can be a self-proclaimed "nutritionist". You are only getting a true, credentialed professional if he/she has RD after their name. And don't be afraid - RDs are not evil, vegetable-eating, health-nut-crazed, food Nazi maniacs looking to judge you and give you a list of impractical rules to follow. Many of us are happy to work within your needs, can relate to your unique situation and are extremely realistic when it comes to food.
If you are interested in obtaining healthy nutrition advice from a registered dietitian, visit www.eatright.org for a listing of practicing dietitians in your area. Or, contact your health insurance provider to find an RD in your plan. Good luck!
Aronne, Dr. L (2009, May 18). ABC News Good Morning America. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from Excerpt: The Skinny on Losing Weight without Being Hungry Web site: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Books/Story?id=7609715&page=1
Friedman, L.F. (2009, July 13). Hungry Girl's rise: She's the Queen of calorie counting. Philadelphia Daily News, Retrieved July 13, 2009, from http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/20090713_Hungry_Girl_s_rise__She_s_the_Queen_of_calorie_counting.html
Lillien, L. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from Hungry Girl Web site: http://www.hungry-girl.com/
Lillien, L. (2009). Hungry Girl 200 Under 200 - Chapter 7: Tortilla Madness. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from Hungry Girl Web site: http://book.hungry-girl.com/books/2/7
Image from: http://www.dietsinreview.com/diet_column/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/hungry-girl-book.jpg