The brainchild of American Lisa Lillien, a former media executive turned food guru, www.Hungry-Girl.com has proved a success in the States, and it could do likewise here.
The US loves a good weight-loss story (Rikki Lake, Jared from the Subway ads, that bouncy, frizzy-haired fellow who looks a bit like Leo Sayer, er… Richard Simmons) and while Lillien’s own personal feat of slimming was hardly the stuff of legend (a respectable, if not scale- busting 25lb), it did lead her to strike upon a new angle in the increasingly bloated, spherical world of diet gurus – homemade, healthy fast food.
Diabetes is a huge problem in the UAE. It is fuelled by a proliferation of easily available fried foods, employees stuck behind desks for long hours, and temperatures that make jumping in a car the only sensible course of action. Recent statistics from Abu Dhabi’s Imperial College London Diabetes Centre reveal that one fifth of the UAE are thought to be suffering with this condition, with many more at risk. It needs a guru!
Speaking to Hungry-Girl’s creator, she prefers to describe herself as ‘a sort of a go-to person for info about the best-tasting foods to give you the best bang for your calorie buck’. Yes, people talk that way in the weight loss world, but at the heart of Hungry-Girl.com is a message that promotes a realistic approach to healthy eating in the age of supersizing and fad diets. Its focus is on lifestyle change, so in addition to recipes and quips, there are lessons on the minutiae of everyday life: things like advice on approaching a movie theatre snack bar (surely, just don’t).
Not short of confidence, Lillien admits that it all started with ‘stopping people in the supermarket and telling them what to buy’. But what could easily have degraded into a series of embarrassing punch-ups in shopping aisles became the spur for something greater. Today, the site has chalked up a steady readership of more than half a million, and The Hungry-Girl Cookbook has sold just as many copies. Her recipes, she says, are ‘usually inspired by something she’s seen on TV’ or ‘just a food we’re craving and decided to create our own version of’, in many cases simply dispensing with or swapping one ingredient for another. She’s the PR dream: an ordinary person trying to make a difference.
Lillien repeatedly stresses on the website that she is neither a nutritionist nor a doctor – something hardly reassuring in someone offering you eating advice – but to ensure accuracy in the nutritional stats of her own creations and those from fast food restaurants, all the food sampled is tested in a laboratory, the result being that many of the items are shown to contain more fat and calories than claimed. At the least, it indicates that seeking a third party for information might be wiser than listening to the company line.
The recipes themselves are simple enough. Replacing ground beef with soy crumbles and using fat-free sour cream, Lillien claims that a fast food-inspired salad can drop from 57g of fat to a mere 3.5g. Oven-baked mozzarella sticks made with light cheese and a cereal-coating contain a fifth of the fat of its high street equivalent. We made a test batch and found them easy to prepare – just pulverise the cereal in a blender, use it to coat low-fat mozzarella sticks from Spinneys, and pop them in the oven. The result wasn’t as tasty as the greasy, golden ones I used to snack on as a teen, but when dunked in marinara sauce there is little difference.
But there is surely a flaw in the philosophy. You could argue that people go to fast food restaurants more out of convenience than a love of gristle and fat. Lillien counters that the website also offers advice on eating out at a number of worldwide fast food restaurants (many found in Dubai), with simple suggestions such as substituting crispy for grilled (the former being a code word for fried), and pointers on the art of tweaking items to cut calories – avoiding mayonnaise or skimping on a handful of almonds can go a long way, she advises. It is the politics of compromise. Of course there are dangers in claiming you can eat healthily anywhere – sometimes this isn’t the case. And while Lillien’s lack of credentials do little to inspire, the point is that this isn’t a diet, and most of her advice is just common sense. The interesting idea is the way it is put across. Whether collaring you in the supermarket, or the softly, softly approach of Hungry-Girl.com, if you can make people listen you’re halfway there. Now, what about Hungry-Boy?