After years of unsuccessful yo-yo diets, this Ballyclare mum lost eight stone and kept it off
Yo-yo dieter Andrea Stewart, from Ballyclare, has shed almost half her body weight, going from a size 22 to a 10, thanks to an online slimming group. She tells Stephanie Bell about her weight loss journey and how she leads her own diet club.
A mum-of-three who has battled obesity since her teens has finally achieved her dream size 10 figure without having to leave the comfort of her own home.
Andrea Stewart, from Ballyclare, has not only transformed how she looks by shedding almost eight stone but also the quality of life enjoyed by herself and her three children - and all through the support of a local online weight loss group.
Now, the single mum says after a lifetime of feeling like "the fattest person in the room, the fattest mum at the school gates and the fattest family member at gatherings", she is determined to help others achieve their ideal weight loss.
As well as losing weight, though, Andrea (38) has recently launched her own slimming group in Larne in the belief that, if she can succeed, anyone can.
She explains: "I set up a Larne branch of We Slim Together last month. And if I can help even one person to change from how I used to feel to how I feel now, then it will be worth it.
"It was the support of others which helped me to succeed. Now, I want to offer that support and show people that it is possible.
"I've been there and done it and hit every bump along the way. If I can do it, anyone can."
As a single mum to Rachael (15), Charlie (13) and Katie (9), Andrea was unable to attend a local slimming group, which is why she joined We Slim Together online last summer.
Until then her weight loss journey had been a series of yo-yo diets. She was stuck in a pattern of losing weight only for all of it, and more, to go back on when she stopped following the programmes.
Worryingly, she even went through a phase of starving herself and exercising intensely which, while she dropped several stone, was detrimental to her health.
Andrea was a young child when she first became aware she was putting on weight: "I was only about nine when I first started to put weight on. It was always gradual through my teens. And it was only in my early 20s, when I was about 15 stone and wearing a size 18-20, that I realised I needed to do something about it.
"I tried every type of diet going. I'd tried pills, starvation, crash diets, slimming clubs, you name it - and I've been there and got the t-shirt.
"A few times I even managed to lose some weight, but within a very short space of time the weight went straight back on, along with some more. It was a vicious circle.
"Then I got married and had kids and by 2008 I was at my heaviest - at 17 stone 12lbs and bursting out of a size 22.
"I had just had my youngest child and we had built a beautiful new bungalow and everything seemed to be going well, but I was so unhappy. It just hit me that everything was good in my life except for my weight."
Again, she joined various weight loss groups in a bid to shed pounds: "I started to restrict my eating and I became quite obsessive about exercise and lost six and a half stone in seven months."
But Andrea's new regime was anything but healthy. She recalls: "I was skipping meals and lying to family about when I had eaten. I was also running the two miles to the gym every day for a two-hour work-out then running home again.
"I ate very, very little and pushed myself to crazy limits with the exercising. At one stage I lost both my big toenails from constantly walking and running the roads."
She admits: "I couldn't sustain it. The lies got to me and the secrets I was keeping from my family, which was quite sad. With hindsight, had I kept it up, I would have put myself in an early grave. My health was really suffering. But as soon as I stopped, the weight came back on slowly over the next two years."
Sadly, Andrea's marriage broke down, then six months later she lost her dad to cancer.
During this tough time she once again sought solace in food.
The single mum, who is a property investor, says she ate the wrong foods, ordering takeaways for convenience; eating too much, at the wrong times and snacked between meals.
Eventually it caught up with her and she put on another four stone.
"I felt depressed and I had completely pulled myself back from everyone and wouldn't go out," Andrea says.
"I turned down invitations and wouldn't go anywhere, because I was always self-conscious that I would be the fattest person there.
"By 2011, I noticed my clothes all getting tighter again, it was creeping back on again. Then I moved up another size, and again the clothes got tighter.
"The secret eating started again, and the weight piled back on. The vicious circle began again and I felt guilty about letting myself get back to the size I didn't want to be. I comfort ate to console myself, then I put on more weight, and the guilty feelings doubled.
"I'd feel repulsed about being the size I was and the effect it was having on my own health and the lives of my family. I just existed, as opposed to actually living."
Then, last September, when her children went back to school, Andrea decided that she needed to do something to lose weight.
She hadn't put all of her weight back on, but knew that if she didn't change her lifestyle that she was heading back to her heaviest.
"I wanted my life back," says Andrea. "I had overheard friends talking about We Slim Together and how it was focused on healthy eating and support as opposed to dieting. I truly enjoy my food, so I thought one last attempt would be worth it. That was the turning point for me."
We Slim Together started in 2013 when Antrim woman Sonya McAllister asked for support on Facebook with her own weight loss journey. She was so overwhelmed by the response that she left her career as a mental health nurse to set up We Slim Together.
Sonya recognised the benefits of giving and receiving support during her weight loss, which is why she established her member-orientated healthy eating support group.
It snowballed and there are now 14 groups throughout the province.
The support aspect is something which has worked equally well online for people like Andrea who find it difficult to get to classes. As well as having access to an online consultant, Andrea gets membership of a closed Facebook support group, where she says there was always someone online to encourage her and give her advice at any time of the day or night.
It was this support which she says has helped her to succeed: "The support and encouragement was amazing.
"If I had a wee blip, there was always someone there who understood and got me through it.
"I weighed myself every day and texted my weight through to the online consultant.
"There are also hundreds of recipes online which are so good that you wouldn't dream of ordering a takeaway when you can cook such delicious food.
"The recipes are also very family-friendly, so my children ate what I did and they have benefited, too. We are healthier as a result and that has also made me feel very proud, to be able to give that to my kids."
And Andrea's efforts were clear to see when she stepped out recently looking stunning in a glamorous figure-hugging red evening dress for the annual We Slim Together member's ball in the Hilton Hotel. She was also presented with the Star Slimmer for Online Members Award at the event.
Attending the ball in her beautiful gown was a moment which Andrea said she couldn't even have imagined.
To be able to go shopping for such a statement outfit, never mind look a million dollars in it, was also a new experience for her. "Buying that dress was such a big deal for me," says Andrea. "I've always hated clothes shopping, because it was just a matter of finding something that covered everything and how it looked was pretty much irrelevant.
"I hated how I looked and clothes weren't going to help. To me, shopping for clothes always made me feel even worse about myself.
"The We Slim Together gala ball was the first major event that I've been to in years. It was something where everyone was going to be dressed up and looking fantastic, and the first time I felt I had the confidence to join them.
"When I saw this dress and asked for it in a size 10, just hearing myself say that didn't sound right.
"Red is my favourite colour and I stood in the changing area willing the dress to fit. The zip slid up so easily. I could have cried when I looked in the mirror, as I couldn't believe that was me standing there in such a beautiful dress. I'd never worn anything like that before and never dreamt I would.
"I felt totally fantastic in. With my new figure and beautiful dress I felt like Cinders was ready for the ball."
Life has been transformed for Andrea in every way since she lost her weight. Not only is she more confident, but she feels fitter and healthier and has more energy to take part in activities with her children and no longer hides herself at home.
She adds: "Now there is no question, if there is something happening or somewhere my kids want to go, I will be there.
"I now love life and enjoy it with my kids. I have so much more energy, that I feel like I could conquer the world.
"My children say I am a lot more chilled. Life is so much better for us now and we do so much together that before I just wouldn't have done.
"I've lost nearly four stone with We Slim Together and am maintaining it.
"I'm now the lightest I've ever been - nearly eight stone lighter than I was at my heaviest.
"I haven't been a size 10 since I was 10 years old and I feel fantastic."
She admits, though: "I still get the cravings and sometimes struggle, but my relationship with food has totally changed - all because of what I have learned by being a member of We Slim Together.
"Now I know what will trigger bad eating habits.
"I love my food, and now, thanks to We Slim Together, I can eat it, stay healthy and keep that excess weight off.
"I feel like a new person and now I just want to help other people feel that way about themselves too through my new group."
- Andrea's We Slim Together group meets every Wednesday in St John's Masonic Club in Larne at 7.15pm. For more details, tel: 07821 755 115