For all of his wit, charm and success, a little bit of the boy who once was nicknamed "Fat Albert' still clings to "Today" show weatherman and feature anchor Al Roker.
It's there in the excess 140 pounds that once draped Roker's frame. It's in his admission that he's been plagued by low self-esteem all his life, and in the recent humiliating confession that, a month after undergoing weight-loss surgery in 2001, he lost control of his bowels while visiting the White House.
But "Fat Albert" has grown up into a much more confident adult who has lost — and for the most part, kept off — his excess weight. It's that same poised Roker, now 58, who recently published an autobiographical self-help book: "Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight Loss Battle for Good."
The disarmingly candid Roker is scheduled to visit Baltimore on Friday to meet fans and sign copies of his book. He recently chatted by phone about his fitness triumphs, setbacks and coping strategies, and about the continuing challenges of maintaining a healthy weight.
Everyone is always asking me how I lost my weight. It's been 12 years since I had gastric bypass surgery, and some people don't even know that I had it. It's not a "how to" book because not everyone needs or wants a gastric bypass operation.
But there are a lot of commonalities that people who deal with food issues experience, and Lord knows, I've been through them all. I thought my story might give people a little inspiration and hope.
You were overweight as a boy, and you write that your excess pounds caused low self-esteem.
When you're a roly-poly kid and you have to shop at the husky boys department, you think, "Great. Strap me up to a dog sled, and I'll run the Iditarod."
Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, Bill Cosby came out with his "Fat Albert" character. I was already chubby, and my first name is Al. Walking into my high school cafeteria and hearing the chorus of "Hey, hey, hey" will forever be burned into my memory.
Tell us about the promise that you made to your father on his deathbed.
My dad had been smoking for 35 years when he quit cold turkey. He went from two packs of Pall Malls a day to nothing. But by then it was too late. In 2001, he started not feeling well. We took him to the doctor, they did tests, and they found out that he had lung cancer and it was pretty virulent.
When he was in the hospital, I would visit him each day before broadcasting the "Today" show. One day, we got to talking, and it got very emotional. He said: "The only one I'm worried about is you. It's pretty clear that I'm not going to be here to help raise my grandchildren." He made me swear that I would lose weight.
That afternoon, when I stopped by after work to visit, he was just staring off into space. The nurses said he had stopped talking that morning. His disease had advanced and was affecting his ability to speak. It was the last conversation we ever had.
But don't you make the point in your book that nagging someone to lose weight is doomed to fail? You write that people who are overweight are keenly aware that they have a problem, but they have to decide on their own to deal with it.
That's right. I didn't keep my promise right away. My father died Oct. 30, 2001, and then there was the funeral, and then my wife found out that she was pregnant with our son. It wasn't until early January when I said, "Wait, I've got to take care of this." I think it was a blessed intersection. I was ready to change — I was almost desperate — and my father pointed me in the right direction.
You tried several diets that didn't work. And then you had gastric bypass surgery, lost a huge amount of weight and kept it off. What do you think made the difference?
I tried Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Optifast, OptiSlim, the Scarsdale Diet.
I think the surgery works because it makes a permanent change in you. Your stomach is smaller, so you have no choice. You can't physically eat the way you once did. You just can't.
But after keeping the weight off for six years, my mother got sick, I started slipping up and eating junk food to console myself, and I regained 40 of the 140 pounds I'd lost. Like I say in my book, you can eat your way through a bypass.
But I decided, "I'm not losing this battle." I went on a detox-and-cleanse regimen, and lost 28 pounds in 28 days.
You've said repeatedly that the decision to have gastric bypass surgery shouldn't be undertaken lightly, and that there can be side effects ranging from the serious to the seriously embarrassing. For instance, your recent admission that you suffered temporary incontinence went viral and resulted in widespread mockery.
People have made their comments. Good for them. I was trying to make the point that a gastric bypass is a dangerous operation. One in 200 people who have the surgery die. If anyone thinks that surgery is the route they want to go, there are things they should take into consideration.
Did you suffer other side effects from the surgery? For instance, can you eat all the foods that you could eat before the operation?
There isn't much that I can't eat, though there are a few things like white meat chicken that I still have trouble digesting. I also can't eat a lot of ice cream, though I didn't become lactose-intolerant.
Some people are afraid that the surgery will take away one of their chief pleasures by destroying their love for food.
I think that I actually enjoy food more. I'm not overindulging; I'm indulging. I still love to cook, and I still love to prepare meals for my family.
Did you discover that the surgery changed your tastes at all? Were there things that you once craved that you can now take or leave?
My tastes did change. The desire for some foods has become less intense, the irrational compulsion to eat high-fat and high-carb foods like macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I'll still eat them, but I'm satisfied with just a few forkfuls. I can actually exercise judgment now.