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A hungry girl's guide to shedding pounds without guilt

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 (seven or nine kilograms) 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, says Lillien, as she dashes from a couch at Hungry Girl headquarters to the kitchen, to help an assistant whip up baked potato skins stuffed with cheese and bacon.

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.

Neither is Lillien, who likes to joke there was a time when she'd climb over a table to steal a companion's french fries.

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.

Today, 1.2 million subscribers get a mix of recipes, advice and ads for food companies like Star Kist and General Mills, whose products she endorses.

Lillien, who started the business at home, now oversees a staff of 12 at a sprawling office in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

To some extent, the headquarters more closely resembles a huge teenage girl's room with a kitchen thrown in. Pillows and cushions scattered about are decorated with pictures of Tootsie Rolls, Sweet Tarts and other candies. Cans of soup, packages of nuts, bowls of chips and other ingredients are stacked here and there. On one wall a silk-screen depicts a can of Campbell's Soup, with Dino the dinosaur from “The Flintstones” TV show, on the label.

It's here that Lillien and her staff experiment, mad-scientist-like, she says, with thousands of recipes.

The result is Italian, Mexican, Chinese and even unique Hungry Girl food, the latter including all kinds of egg-white concoctions that can be microwaved in a mug. That came about because even before she began counting calories she was often too lazy to pull out a skillet and fry anything.

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In this Oct. 11 photo, “Hungry Girl” Lisa Lillien poses in her office in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles. She never set out to become a controversial food maven, telling people how to eat their cake and keep their weight down too. Lillien was just another LA “Hungry Girl,” who would diet off that extra 20 pounds and then put the weight back on. (AP)

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