Nutrition and weight-loss expert Claire Turnbull understands why people might wonder what she would know about struggling with weight. The author of Lose Weight for Life is slim and toned, a walking advertisement for good health. Her idea of a treat is a smoothie with berries and spinach, and she can’t get through the day without doing some form of exercise.
To run her business, Mission Nutrition, Claire has to know the theory of how to shed kilos, but she also knows what it’s like to be obsessed with food and hate yourself because you’re fat. “Oh, I know all about that,” says Claire (30). “I’ve been through it all myself.”
Claire, who was born in the north of England and moved to Auckland seven years ago, was kicked out of dancing classes as a kid for being too fat. By five she was obsessed with food, and went through a stage of only eating beetroot, cottage cheese and potatoes.
At 11 she went to an all-girls school, where many fellow pupils were fixated on body image, and she got drawn into a cycle of skipping meals to try to stay slim only to then binge on chocolate.
“There were days when I would only eat three apples, and then there were days when I gorged myself,” says Claire, who would also exercise obsessively. “I could eat three family-sized bags of Maltesers [chocolates] in one sitting, and I would be crying into the last bag, hating myself.”
In her teens, her obsessions had taken over her life and “I would go to bed at night thinking, ‘I don’t want to wake up in the morning’. I didn’t want to be in my life any more.”
The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she comes from a close and loving family. But her mum Sue struggled with her weight and was always dieting. “I learned that what you eat can completely take over the way you feel about yourself, and food can become so much more than just fuel; it becomes a way of coping with life.”
It’s hard to believe now, because Claire seems so bubbly and outgoing, but when she was growing up she had zero self-esteem. It made her an easy target for bullies and she went through a terrible time at primary school. “I had no friends and I got picked on all the time – kids used to spit at me,” she remembers.
“My parents sent me to the same school as my little brother, who is three years younger, so he could look after me.” Fortunately, by the time she reached her teens she had a close group of friends who helped to support her when she eventually realised she had to stop using food as a coping mechanism.
A friend’s suicide at 15 made Claire understand that wanting to opt out of life was not a solution. She went to university to study dietetics and the more she learned about nutrition and health, the more she understood the importance of eating well. Through therapy she addressed her self-esteem issues and changed her attitude towards food.
“It has been a very long process but I have got there,” smiles Claire, a former hospital dietician who now gives nutrition advice on radio, TV and in Healthy Food Guide magazine. Staying slender takes effort.
“I’m not naturally thin – if I ate cake and biscuits every day and drank wine every night I would be massive. I used to want chocolate so much I would eat chocolate spread straight out of the jar. Now I can have one square and put the rest back.
“A lot of those conversations are still there – ‘I’ve had a bad day, wine would help’ – but I know how to deal with these thought patterns now. Eating or drinking to help you cope is a habit you can unlearn, and if you know why food messes with your mind, you can find ways of dealing with it. You can work to build healthy habits and then the sky is the limit. I am living proof of that.”