Kathleen Callahan

Kathleen lost 60 pounds on a diet that aims to reduce cravings and overeating by largely eliminating sugar, salt and white flour and substituting high-nutrient fiber-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits and beans. (Gretchen Ertl/Photo for the Tribune)

Telling a food addict to eat problem foods in moderation "is like telling an alcoholic that drinking in moderation is fine; they just can't do it," Callahan says.

For her, what worked was connecting with the right coach and setting the bar high, initially eliminating meat, dairy, sugar, added salt and almost all processed and refined foods. The transition was tough, but Callahan says that once she worked through it, she began to reap the rewards. Fruit tasted like candy, and a big, healthy salad became deeply satisfying. Hunger started to feel different: It was less of an emergency, more of a manageable sensation.

"I started losing weight, but that was a side effect," she says. "I had a profound sense of relief that I wasn't completely out of control anymore."

Callahan, who went from a size 18 to a size 8 or 10, found that being leaner made being active easier, and she started to crave exercise. She hikes, bikes, kayaks and snowshoes near her home in Pepperell, Mass., and works out with a personal trainer.

She sleeps better, she says, and she feels more energetic.

"I feel mighty!" Callahan says, laughing.

"It's not even that I'm exerting willpower to keep myself on the straight and narrow. Once you start eating this way, that's what your body wants and that's what you crave. You crave healthy foods. It's not even an issue. It's not like, 'Poor me, I don't get to have eggplant parm anymore!' I don't think if you put it in front of me and offered me a million dollars — well, maybe for a million dollars I might take it. I have a price like everybody else, but it would be high."

Are you a food addict?

One of the best ways to determine if you have addictive tendencies when it comes to food is to take the Yale Food Addiction Scale survey, said food addiction researcher Avena of the University of Florida. If you want to tackle addictive eating, start slowly, Avena suggests. If you're a heavy soda drinker, maybe you can replace soda with mineral water. Once you get comfortable with that change, you can identify another sugary problem food you want to cut out, perhaps a dessert. You eventually may end up with an eating plan very similar to the 90 percent unrefined plant food-based "Eat to Live," Avena says, but you'll get there in a way that increases your chances of long-term success.

"There have been plenty of studies with learning that have taught us that if you want to make a change, it has to be done in small steps," she says.

nschoenberg@tribune.com