When Lisa Lillien lost about 30 pounds seven years ago, she did it by giving up "everything good."
But she knew she couldn't maintain such a strict diet. So instead she worked to control her weight through smaller adjustments that were more likely to last.
By May 2004, Lillien's success had prompted her to send e-mail newsletters with diet tips and recipes to a handful of weight watching friends.
Though she dreamed of turning her service into more, she let it develop naturally through word-of-mouth. It worked. By December, she was reaching about 10,000 subscribers.
"From day one, the reaction was so positive that I felt it was only a matter of time," she says.
Four years later, her "Hungry Girl" missives reach 450,000 subscribers daily.
Now that newsletter — and its Web site spinoff Hungry-Girl.com ("Tips & Tricks For Hungry Chicks!") — have spawned a mini-industry, including product endorsements and a new cookbook.
"I love to gossip. I love to share information. And food is something I feel really passionate about," says Lillien.
Nothing is off-limits for the Hungry Girl, from tuna melts to twice-baked potatoes, from brownies to banana bread. Lillien believes there's a smart way to indulge in just about anything.
Her way is neither extreme nor based on denial. She uses the Weight Watchers POINTS values as a guide, and some of her recipes are codeveloped with Weight Watchers.
"It's just about finding guilt-free versions of the foods that you love and finding a way to incorporate things like pizza and onion rings and ice cream on a regular basis and still fit into your pants," Lillien says.
Since the start, Lillien has offered her seal of approval to numerous products she says are filling, but pack few calories, including one of her favorites, Tofu Shirataki noodles.
Like all the foods Lillien suggests, the soy-based noodles provide filling portions with few calories.
"That's what the whole brand is based on," she says. "Hungry Girl is all about finding the best products. From minute one, it was all about cutting through all the stuff that's on the market."
And it's a proven formula. For decades, the Good Housekeeping Seal has inspired confidence in products while extending a magazine brand. Lillien has positioned herself to benefit in a similar fashion.
"For her to repeatedly be linked to well-known brands in the industry may generate some credibility for her writing," says Greg Pickett, chair of the marketing department at Clemson University in South Carolina.
While General Mills can't yet measure the impact of Hungry Girl mentions on sales of some of their products, such as Fiber One breakfast cereal, they say they are happy to appear in her reviews and recipes.
"Hungry Girl is a natural fit for many of our brands," says Greg Zimprich, director of brand public relations.
And now the tips and recipes that got her noticed online have gone old media in Lillien's cookbook, "Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World."
And true to the Hungry Girl ethos, the book includes chapters such as, "Junk Food Junkie" and "Manly Meals," with recipes for chili cheese nachos, potato skins, onion rings and a "super-svelte bacon melt."
Lillien says she tries to avoid the obvious.
"People know that eating fruits and vegetables and lean meat and fish is good for them," she says. Her advice isn't for the perfect dieter, it's for the food lover who wants to avoid dieting disasters.
Her advice comes in handy "when people want to satisfy cravings and not go off the deep end and eat a whole bag of Oreos," she says.
It's an approach that appeals to Hungry Girl fan Michelle Penso, a 21-year-old graduate student from New York's Long Island. "She's not saying, 'Don't eat this, don't eat that,'" Penso says. "It's really, 'Eat whatever you want, here are some great recipes.'"
Penso says the chatter on Lillien's Web site and among newsletter subscribers feels like a group of women sharing recipes and support. (Though there are plenty of male fans, too.)
"I've cycled a little with weight," Penso says. "I'm constantly fine-tuning how I eat, and I think Lisa really helps with that."
At times, Lillien's advice is more about looking good than being healthful. But Lillien doesn't call herself an expert. "I'm not a nutritionist or a doctor," she writes in her book. "I'm just hungry."