'I would've eaten myself to death': Recovering Kiwi binge eater out to remove gastric sleeve stigma

After dropping almost 90 kilograms, Burt says she's finally "at peace".
After dropping almost 90 kilograms, Burt says she's finally "at peace". Photo credit: Instagram/ @life_of_a_binge_eater_

Warning: This article contains descriptions of eating disorders, weight loss that may be triggering to some readers. 

A New Zealand woman who says her eating disorder almost killed her is trying to break the stigma around weight loss surgery after dropping almost 90kg. 

Timaru local Claire Burt - known to her 30,000 Instagram followers as 'Life of a Binge Eater' - says she battled with her size all her life, even as a child. 

"Growing up I was really tall compared to my peers - when I was five I looked like I was 12, once I got to year 8 I was six foot," she tells Newshub.

"I'd be called fat and other not nice things that made me have really bad body image - and that triggered binge eating." 

The obsession with weight "spiralled" in her high school years. 

"I started restricting [my eating], which led to anorexia where I'd starve myself. I felt like I didn't deserve to eat."

Burt describes having an eating disorder as like "having two people in your head". 

"Whether you're suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating - there's two people in your head, and the second person is constantly telling you to do it," she says.

"Normally the eating disorder brain wins." 

Following high school, Burt's weight rocketed to 136kg and she wearily got back on the weight loss train. 

"I went through another weight loss 'journey' - I tried everything you can think of," she says. 

"Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, paleo, keto... my binge eating disorder would take over every time."

She also got into a relationship with a "mentally and physically abusive man". 

"He was cheating and my self-worth was so bad, I thought if I got thin it would stop him cheating." 

Things got worse as her binge eating soon turned to bulimia. 

"Every time I would eat I would vomit it out. There was no food going through me. The only thing going through me was coffee."

Burt of course lost weight and started to get the troubling positive reinforcement from friends and family many ED sufferers will know so well. 

"People would be like, ''oh you look amazing','' she reflects. "I started over exercising. I'd run to the gym, workout and run home. If I was at work I'd be doing one-legged squats at my desk. 

"You'd think without any nutrients I'd be tired but it was like I was living off this adrenaline that was keeping me going." 

According to experts, an adrenaline response is a common symptom of the body going into starvation mode. 

"I was euphoric - I was addicted to that feeling. It keeps you going... until I got really sick." 

Burt's binge eating disorder returned and her weight skyrocketed from 80kg to 146kg within a year. 

"People wouldn't understand. [They think] 'Oh my God she's lazy, why can't she keep the weight off?', because there's no education around binge eating disorder,'' says Burt. 

"They don't know it's a thing - and I didn't either until I was diagnosed." 

"I was like a meth addict" 

At the end of 2018, Burt went to a psychologist who diagnosed her with Binge Eating Disorder (BED). 

"Everything she said I just thought, oh my God, that is me," says Burt. 

"I'd blackout from a binge. I wouldn't even remember getting the food, I'd just blackout and then come to, covered in crumbs."

It was while working with her psychologist Burt started her Instagram account: 'Life of a Binge Eater'.  

"While I was recovering, I'd share my story with others. I connected with people all over the world struggling with the same thing."  

Burt lost another 26kg over the course of 2019 - but it was a constant battle against her BED. 

She says at times, her parents would be sitting with her in her bedroom, begging her not to go to the kitchen. 

"I'd be physically screaming and crying because I wanted to binge eat while my parents comforted me - I was like a meth addict. 

"I'd sneak out and bring heaps of food into my room and hide the wrappers under my bed. The whole time I was open about what I was doing - with my parents, and on my page." 

It was then Burt began to consider weight loss surgery - specifically the installation of a gastric sleeve - as a "last resort". 

"There's a massive stigma around it being the easy way out. I had people [accusing me] of cheating," she says.

"I'd say 'it's going to save my life'. I hadn't thought about it lightly - I had got to a point where I was going to eat myself to death." 

A desperate wait 

Burt had a consultation with a surgeon for the surgery and a date was fixed for early 2020 - then New Zealand went into alert COVID-19 level 4 lockdown as the pandemic hit the nation. 

"I got told it would be next year and I thought there was no hope. I sunk into this really dark place [and] I ended up gaining 20kg in six weeks," she says.

"I was eating and consuming so much food to the point I wouldn't be able to physically move - I would be in this comatose state." 

During this time she reached her highest weight yet - over 170kg. 

"I couldn't walk up my own path, I struggled to put on my own undies - my mum had to come over to clean my bum because I couldn't reach around," Burt says.

"You feel disgusting, and have so much hate for yourself. I thought this was it - my life was over. There was no hope." 

Then Burt got a phone call that changed it all. 

"[The doctor said] We're going to level 3 in five days, let's book your surgery." 

The COVID-19 alert level 3 lockdown meant Burt had to go up to Christchurch alone to have the gastric sleeve surgery she had been so desperately waiting for. 

But the operation that was meant to save her life almost killed her. 

"I ended up nearly dying, I had really rare complications. My new tiny tummy kept getting twisted - they had me on a feeding tube, nothing would go down. My organs started shutting down."

It took a further two surgeries before Burt was on the road to recovery. 

"I kept saying 'Why did I have this surgery' and my mum would say: 'It's going to be OK, you're going to be fine'." 

Out the other side 

After struggling with eating disorders, yo-yo-ing weight and a surgery that almost killed her, Burt has recovered and since lost almost 90kg. 

"I would 100 percent go through all [the surgeries] at the start to be here," she says, adding her greatest joy comes in the things "we take for granted". 

"Tying my own shoelaces, getting dressed: all that is easy now and I'm living a healthy life where I'm able to run, I'm able to go to the gym to workout." 

Once pre-diabetic, now her blood test results are "immaculate". 

"I have a whole new lease on life." 

There are still complications, including 'dumping syndrome' - an uncomfortable common post-surgery symptom which sees undigested food get "dumped" into the small intestine if the stomach can't handle it. 

And there are foods that are forever off the menu for Burt: "Pizza, bread, pasta, fizzy drinks". 

"Once, I'd eat 10 burgers from McDonald's, and a couple hours later two Domino's pizzas," she remembers. 

"Now I'm eating six small servings a day, all protein-based to fuel my body." 

But the biggest change?

"I have no binging thoughts - I'm completely at peace. I've never had that in my life. Through anorexia, binge eating, bulimia... I always had an obsession with food. 

"Now my thoughts are clear - for the first time, I'm at peace." 

Burt is now trying to break the stigma that still surrounds weight loss surgery. 

"I am proof that this was the best thing I can ever have done for my health - that's so much more important than what people think," she says. 

"It's about the mental side as well - I'm a completely different person.

"There are always going to be people that don't agree with you, but your own opinion is the most important."  

Burt says her surgery, including initial consultations with psychologist and dietician, cost almost $23,000 in total - which she predominantly paid for using her health insurance and Kiwisaver fund. 

It was a lot of paperwork to get it over the line, but she credits her parents with being her support network. 

"Mum and dad have been my rocks through everything," she says. "I'm so lucky to have them - they've been through the struggle as well.

"They're amazing. I wouldn't have been able to do it without them." 

You can follow Burt's journey on her Instagram page, where she documents her new life. 

She encourages anyone struggling with similar issues to reach out.