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Real Life

How I lost 87kg and got my life back

Eating disorders and medical intervention almost killed her, but Claire's finally on the path to feeling fabulous

By Cloe Willetts
If it hadn't been for drastic weight-loss surgery, social media sensation Claireabelle Burt would've eaten herself to death. The Timaru nanny and singer weighed 170kg when she received life-changing gastric sleeve surgery last April. Now, after years of battling traumatic eating disorders at both ends of the spectrum, she's finally at peace.
"I've had anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder," says Claire, 28, who amassed over 31,000 followers on Instagram after posting about her roller-coaster weight-loss journey. "I didn't even know binge-eating disorder was a thing until I was diagnosed a few years ago. But it was so severe at one point that food didn't reach my stomach for two months straight."
Claire's body battle started at primary school, where she was bullied for being taller than her peers. "By the time I was 12, I was six foot and since I wasn't your average-sized girl, kids called me fat," the bubbly blonde recalls. "To this day, I hate that word. I can remember every single moment, every person and what we were wearing when someone called me that."
The bullying continued when she started high school. By then, Claire was sneaking food from the pantry at home and stashing empty wrappers in her bedroom.
Then: At 152kg, Claire decided she needed surgery.
"When I look back at photos, I wasn't fat, but I thought I was because I'd heard it so many times. A group of boys called me Big Foot, which led to me being anorexic and restricting food at 16. I'd throw away what was in my lunchbox as soon as I got to school and then at dinner, I'd let the dog eat off my plate."
But as Claire restricted food, compulsive eating followed.
"I'd starve myself for a week and then be so hungry, I'd binge for another week," she tells.
"It was like a cycle. I'd get down to a certain size, but then I'd regain the weight, with extra each time."
By the end of high school, she weighed 130kg. At 21, Claire's obsession with her weight took a turn for the worse and she began purging.
"I ended up really sick with bulimia and any time I'd eat, I'd vomit straight away," admits the eating-disorder advocate, whose friends and family thought her weight loss was due to a Paleo diet. "I'd also over-exercise and the only thing going in was coffee. I had all this adrenaline and felt like I was on drugs. I was working at a butcher's and if no-one was around, I'd stand there doing one-legged squats while holding big hams."
Her student days may have been hellish, but Claire found comfort at home with family who "loved me no matter what."
Claire says a toxic and abusive relationship triggered her bouts of bulimia. "He cheated on me and I thought he'd love me more if I was small, which is obviously not true," she asserts. "I obsessed over my image so much, I'd have to check myself in the mirror every 20 minutes to make sure I'd lost weight. I dropped to 79kg and everyone said how good I looked."
Then a night out on the town, when she tried to break up a fight and a man called her fat, spun Claire into depression. She tells, "There was that triggering word again and my binge eating completely took over. I got bigger and bigger, and the more I ate, the more depressed I'd get, so the more I'd eat."
Three years ago, she was barely leaving the house. "I wouldn't do normal things like go out for coffee because I hated myself and the body I was in so much," shares Claire. "I felt like a monster and didn't want anyone seeing me apart from my family and close friends, who've been with me throughout all this and loved me no matter what."
Eventually, her worried parents suggested Claire see a psychologist. There, she was diagnosed with binge-eating disorder, and learnt about the connection between her childhood bullying and unhealthy relationship with food.
She explains, "People look at a big person and think they must be lazy, but there can be something mentally going on."
Claire post-op.
Claire started her Instagram account Life of a Binge Eater in 2019, when she weighed 148kg.
"I did it for myself because I'd begun my fitness journey again," says the influencer, who was open and honest about being trapped in an eating disorder. "It was amazing having these people connect with me who completely understood."
Followers supported her as she dropped 38kg in six months. But eventually, Claire began bingeing again. Her eating became so extreme, she'd consume 10 burgers with extra side dishes in one sitting. Sometimes she'd binge three times a day.
"I was also deteriorating mentally," she confesses. "It was the frustration of, 'Here we go again!' It's like being a drug addict, craving food. I'd have withdrawals and cry if I couldn't binge."
Her weight escalated to 152kg. "That's when I knew I couldn't do it any more," Claire recalls. "I needed surgery. I had no energy or motivation at all and cried to my followers because I couldn't believe it'd got to that point. I couldn't even wipe my own bottom
and had to get Mum to come around to do it. I couldn't walk the path to my house without losing my breath. I'd lost hope."
Claire nearly died when her body rejected her new tummy.
However, because of her past eating disorders, Claire was turned down for funding for the $22,000 surgery. Fortunately, she discovered she could use her Kiwisaver and health insurance. After a first operation date was cancelled because of the COVID-19 lockdown, during which Claire put on another 20kg, her gastric sleeve surgery took place in April 2020.
Surgeons removed 80 percent of her stomach and the operation was a success. Then her body rejected her new tummy.
"I had complications and nearly died," she tells. "It was scary. It wasn't anything to do with the surgeon or surgery and it's very rare, but my new stomach twisted and I couldn't hold anything down, even my stomach acid."
After a few months, Claire recovered and has since lost 87kg. She's full of energy, her skin glows and she has finally learnt to ration food healthily. "As soon as I woke from surgery, my brain had switched to this realisation it's my second chance," she says. "Nearly dying was a wake-up call as I was only in that situation because of what I'd been putting in my body. Working with the psychologist also really helped."
Gastric sleeve surgery, Claire admits, wasn't easy. "It was the worst experience of my life in terms of pain and nearly dying, but as soon as I started getting better, it was all up from there," she enthuses. "Hand on heart, I'd 100 percent go through surgery again because I wouldn't have been able to lose the weight naturally."
'I feel incredible. It's like I'm starting my life again'
She can no longer stomach her former favourite foods, like bread, pasta and pizza, instead living off vegetables, fish and crackers with avocado or hummus. "I can't eat things like eggs, certain meats or foods high in salt and sugar because my stomach processes things differently after the surgery," Claire tells.
"Everyone's different, and I learnt quickly what I can and can't handle. It becomes the new normal. I eat to fuel my body now."
Along with ensuring her meals include enough protein and nutrients, Claire is also cautious of a post-surgery condition known
as dumping syndrome.
"It's where your tummy decides certain foods aren't good all of a sudden and automatically dumps it into your little intestine without processing it," she explains.
"Your little intestine can't handle that, so you go through cramps, shakes and sweating for 30 minutes to a few hours. You feel like you need to vomit, but you can't because it has already been dumped past your stomach."
Despite the trials of living with just 20 percent of her stomach now, Claire says she's happier than ever. For the first time, she's truly grateful for her precious body.
"Mentally and physically, I'm the healthiest I've ever been and it's an amazing feeling," she smiles. "I feel incredible being able to move and run again – to do the tiniest things most people take for granted. It's like I'm starting life again."

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