Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dieting: My Love and Not-Love Relationship with Hungry Girl - October 5, 2010

As I've mentioned a few times, I'm on a quest to lose weight. I can say it's the "baby weight," but my kid is three, so yeah, not so much. The fact is that my metabolism has changed as I've gotten older but I still eat like I did when I was 19 and pounds just melted away. I was far more active in my late teens/early 20s than I am today. I'm much more likely these days to wind up on the couch for more time than I should whenever I have a spare minute. Having a kid who can't walk unassisted means I'm not doing the usual chase thing (she crawls fast, but not that fast) and I have my mornings to myself. I have been trying to at least do the "free step" program on my Wii Fit while watching TV (similar to walking slowly on a treadmill, at least it gets me moving and upright). Look back and you'll see my efforts to do the 30-Day Shred, but that hurts my knees so I sort of abandoned it.

But I need to eat better too. I'm a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and I think I eat on the healthier side of the spectrum. I buy organic most of the time, I try to avoid processed foods and eat whole foods (imperfect as I am, I don't always succeed, but it's a goal), I get really mad when a label says 0% trans fat because they actually have up to 0.49 grams of it per serving (which adds up quickly) (that link is sponsored by Smart Balance, so it's not entirely impartial, but it has some good info under the tab "The Truth"). But I still like ice cream. And pizza. And french fries. And going to restaurants - maybe it's not fast food in the traditional sense, but it's still usually not the healthiest thing around.

Which brings me to Hungry Girl. When I started really trying to change things up, I requested several of her cookbooks from the library, and I subscribed to her daily emails. And now that I've been reading her stuff in print and online for a while, I wanted to share what I like and don't like. (I titled this post "Love and Not-Love" because I don't hate her one bit, but I don't like everything she says either. There was a blog - since abandoned, it seems - that was devoted to hating her. I don't hate her!)

I like that she has turned me on to products that I now incorporate in my diet on a regular basis: Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Breeze (delicious - I use it in everything), Vitatops (love love love the chocolate flavor - I usually eat them frozen), Amy's Organic Chunky Tomato Bisque (I buy the Trader Joe's version of this, which I believe is identical/made by Amy's yet costs a bit less, though still a splurge for this frugal gal), Laughing Cow (I was already a HUGE fan but she just made me love it that much more, and she uses it in recipes I'd never have thought of - and yes, shamefully, it is processed cheese, but the ingredient list isn't terrible and, um, it's yummy, so there!), and tofu shirataki noodles. (I also am not a fan of 100-calorie snack packs, but she indirectly got me to try the Trader Joe's oatmeal cookie packs. They're made with real ingredients, including eggs, and they taste great. So let's count that too.)

Plus, I like the emails that have product news and reviews in them; she tries out the low-calorie food options in the grocery store and gives what I believe to be an honest opinion of them, and she often gets the scoop on new flavors/options that will be coming out in the future. I also like the emails that break down the calorie counts of many restaurant/fast food items; I find those very eye opening - I may have known something probably wasn't good for me, but seeing the numbers makes it very real. (An aside: I went to IHOP recently and they had calorie and fat counts right on the menu. I knew IHOP wasn't health food but man, that took all the fun out of it. Probably for the best...sure....) And I like that she often substitutes non-meat products for meaty dishes or that I can vegetarian-ize the recipes that I find interesting. She's definitely vegetarian friendly, which I think a lot of diet-type writing isn't.

On the other hand, I just don't like her recipes 99% of the time. She relies on substitutes so that things taste like the fuller fat/caloric version, but the substitutes are usually not particularly healthy. She likes Splenda - I won't touch it (I don't use artificial sweeteners). She likes low-calorie cheese and fat-free dairy (yuck). She likes non-fat Cool Whip - I think that's not a food item at all. She has at times suggested products that substitute healthy fats for fillers or may have that lurking not-really-zero-grams trans fat. And she's suggested products with gelatin, which is only annoying to me personally because I'm a vegetarian and don't eat that - not her fault (although why gelatin is a filler in so many things, including low-calorie yogurt, boggles my mind and kind of grosses me out). I was really disappointed with her cocktail book (though, honestly, what was I expecting?) because it's all "use diet soda and Splenda" over and over.

And I don't like her emphasis on calories. Because I've heard her say that fewer calories means weight loss, and she's right, but there are calories and there are calories. For me, it's worth eating real peanut butter (with just peanuts and maybe some salt as ingredients), which has more calories, yes, but also healthy fats and things that are good for me, rather than a product that adds a ton of other stuff to make up for the fat. It's the whole Michael Pollan idea that eating real food is important. Also, moderation is key and I think a once-in-a-while 300 or 400 calorie coffee beverage isn't going to kill you. (I had a Dunkin Donuts Pumpkin Latte today. I got it with low-fat milk. It's not healthy, but it's a treat, and it tastes better than my own pumpkin-y lower-calorie concoction I make at home. Hungry Girl rants about how many calories are in a medium; I got a small.) Her language about things being "dangerous" or "to be avoided" gets to be a bit much after a while, and sometimes it worries me because you could get a bit obsessive about that (which is not her point, I know).

I respect her perspective, which she's stated in several interviews, that she's not about teaching people how to eat their regular meals every day, that she's about making good-tasting snacks and lower-calorie meal substitutes, that she's about sticking to what people tend to eat and updating that. And she's not a nutritionist and says it up front. Fine, maybe people eat a lot of crap and eating lower-calorie faux-fried crap is better than fatty deep-fried crap. It doesn't mean I have to agree with either option. But I am not an all-or-nothing person (well, I try not to be) and I appreciate that I can pick and choose what I want to use from what she says. If you want something a bit more healthy, try Snack Girl instead, as she is focused on healthy and low-calorie snacks, and I got my kale chip recipe from her.

So if you're looking for cutesy diety tips (sometimes too cutesy, too cartoony, too "you go girl!" for me, but hey...), ways to turn your favorite snack foods and restaurant treats into lower-calorie items, reviews of new products, and a lot of interesting ideas, I think it is worthwhile to subscribe to the Hungry Girl emails. They're free, they don't take up space, and they're archived on her site as well. Pick and choose carefully. I just personally am not into the books and the fake food and the "low calorie or bust" mentality. Then again, if I found one at the thrift store or a used book sale, I'd probably grab it...


  1. It's funny you mention that not-really-zero-trans-fat thing. I was just talking with one of my employees about it this morning. He's Canadian, and he recently discovered that a local Asian grocery stores imports one of his favourite Canadian candy bars. It's got a second US wrapper over the original Canadian wrapper. The US wrapper says in big letters that it's trans-fat free, whereas the Canadian wrapper says that it has trans fats.

    I completely agree with you about Hungry Girl. Her tips were way too cutesy for my taste, and her reliance on over-processed stuff like Cool Whip meant that it got annoying after awhile. I did learn some stuff from it (like the Vanilla Almond Breeze - love it!), but not enough to make me want to buy the books. I'm still on the mailing list, but I only read the mails occasionally.

  2. I want to thank you for mentioning Snack Girl. I don't believe in artificial sweeteners and I think you can do great snacks that are also healthy. I agree with your review of Hungry Girl.
    Thanks so much for reading!! Lisa