"One night I was supposed to go out with my friends but I couldn't do it. Every time someone looked at me I was like, 'That person thinks I'm fat,' " recalls Burke, who estimates she had gained 5 to 10 lbs. while on hiatus from the show.
After the photos ignited a firestorm of disparagement on the Web (including many blogs that called her "fat"), the 5'4" Burke fought back, telling PEOPLE, "You don't have to be anorexic to be beautiful."
Secretly, however, the two-time Dancing champ, 26, was devastated, and tried everything from nearly starving herself ("Couldn't do it," she says) to diet pills ("Nasty – I felt anxious and shaky)."
Ultimately, the weight came off gradually, thanks to her rigorous dance schedule and a focus on eating plenty of vegetables, avoiding preservatives, and allowing for occasional splurges.
"I love carbs and I love chips," she says. "I'm not going to deprive myself – but instead of eating potato chips I'll eat Triscuits or low-fat Cheez-Its."
Now the lifelong dancer, who recently revealed her struggle to overcome the trauma of being molested as a child, says she feels good about her physique – most of the time.
"There are moments when I'm like, 'Ugh – the camera adds 10 lbs,' " she says. "But as long as I work up a sweat and eat clean, I'm okay. I feel great about my body."
For more on Burke's story – including revelations of her childhood sexual abuse – pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday