It wasn't that Kathleen Callahan couldn't lose weight.
"I've dieted myself up and down the scale gazillions of times," the 51-year-old nurse anesthetist says.
"I've done Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem and my own little starvation plans — you know, crazy stuff."
What she couldn't do was keep the weight off. Hunger was an emergency akin to a five-alarm fire, she says.
Thoughts of food filled her mind, and cravings made mincemeat of the persistence and willpower that had allowed her to complete a 105-mile bike ride and put herself through graduate school as a single parent.
"Sometimes I used to feel like I was on a bus with no driver, and it was taking me straight to the Italian restaurant and I couldn't get off, even if I wanted to," Callahan says.
Callahan is one of a small but growing number of Americans who believe that some foods exert an addictive pull on them, and that eliminating problem foods is a better solution than traditional "moderation." Using the eating plan in the best-selling book "Eat to Live," which eliminates or severely restricts foods such as doughnuts and pizza and consists mainly of vegetables, fruits and beans, she has lost 60 pounds, she says, and gained control of her eating.
In addition to "Eat to Live," which includes a chapter on food addiction as well as frequent references to author Joel Fuhrman's theory that "toxic hunger" is triggered by foods low in nutrients and fiber, there's the best-selling diet book "Wheat Belly," by William Davis, which claims that wheat is addictive for many people.
The science of food addiction has made rapid strides in recent years, with University of Florida College of Medicine assistant professor Nicole Avena and her colleagues showing that rats that binge repeatedly on sugar behave much like rats addicted to morphine or alcohol, exhibiting symptoms of bingeing, tolerance and withdrawal.
A 2001 study published in the Lancet found that obese people have abnormalities in brain dopamine activity similar to those seen in cocaine, alcohol and opiate addicts. And a subsequent study published in 2011 in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that that people with higher food addiction scores respond to pictures of a chocolate milkshake with more activity in brain regions associated with motivation to eat and less activation in brain regions linked with self-control.
Scientists also note the anecdotal evidence that food has addictive aspects.
"Haven't you experienced that there are certain foods that you don't even want to try because they are so powerful vis-a-vis their rewarding effects that you immediately want more?" says Dr. Nora Volkow, director the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"So what more proof do we (need) than all of us having this experience?"
But the field of food addiction is still young, and the popular food plans that claim to fight addiction go well beyond the scientific findings, restricting foods such as corn, raisins and whole-grain breads and pastas, and encouraging drastic changes that some experts say probably aren't optimal.
Ashley Gearhardt, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a method of measuring food addiction, says she likes the basic idea of "Eat to Live," which derives at least 90 percent of its calories from unrefined plant foods, strictly limits processed foods and keeps meat to a minimum. "Eat to Live" encourages eating regular meals and places no limit on green and nonstarchy vegetables, fruits and beans.
Gearhardt's objection — and it's a big one in a world where most diets eventually fail —– is that people will find it hard to stick to such a restrictive plan.
"I think it's important in these eating-related situations where we don't have that much science yet to take incremental steps to test things out and see how they work for you, rather than jumping to extremes back and forth," Gearhardt says. "That binge-restrict, binge-restrict pattern is really problematic for a number of things, and one of those things is that it may set up addictive processes in the brain and in the psyche. It's kind of more what works for you on a consistent, lifestyle basis."
If you suspect you have food addiction problems, you may want to seek support from a therapist, a nutritionist or a support group, Gearhardt says. If you want to try eliminating problem foods, she suggests going slowly, maybe cutting out your top problem food and seeing whether you feel freed or frustrated before considering other food restrictions.
The few studies available suggest that maybe 25 percent of obese adults could be diagnosed as food-addicted.
Gearhardt's incremental approach doesn't appeal to Callahan, who tried "Eat to Live" on and off for a while before diving in 100 percent in April 2012 with the help of a motivational coach.
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.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun