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Weighing the risks: Al's update

Knowing that his weight loss progress is being watched by millions, NBC's Al Roker is determined to set the record straight on what life after gastric bypass really means.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

There was a striking difference between the Al Roker at this summer's Olympics in Athens and the Winter Games just two years earlier --  a 115 pound difference. This time around Al was showing some skin in his synchronized swimming spoof with Matt Lauer.

Al Roker: "I would never have done that before."

Stone Phillips: "Were you nervous about it at all when you got the assignment?"

Roker: "No, you know what? It's funny. I didn't quite think it through that we were doing synchronized swimming, so that it wasn't until we actually got the-- I had my swimsuit and then I thought, oh, you know what? I do have to take my shirt off, but--"

Phillips: "On national television."

Roker:  "On national television, but it didn't really phase me as much as it would have. I mean, I'm not -- you notice there were no really clear shots of me without my shirt, but--"

Phillips: "So, we don't get to see those washboard abs?"

Roker: "No, you didn't. No you didn't."

What we have gotten to see in the two and a half years since Al had his gastric bypass surgery, of course, is his dramatic weight loss. And knowing that his progress is being watched by millions Al is determined to set the record straight on what life after gastric bypass really means.

Roker: "For anybody who thinks that this is a magic bullet, you do this and it's done. You're making a mistake. It's not."

Phillips: "You still got work."

Roker: "You still got work. I mean, I still work out, you know, five days a week. I get there 4:30 in morning, and I hate it. I hate it. But, I know that's what I have to do. I mean, my goal is that at some point I'm going to be enough, in really good shape that I will be able to beat my trainer to death and walk away."

The surgery has forced Al to radically alter his diet. He still eats three meals a day but consumes far less. For example, he’ll have a few BBQ ribs instead of a whole rack, with just a spoonful of potato salad. Dessert is a rarity. And there's another change: He can no longer use food as an emotional crutch. As a result he's had to take an honest look at what motivated him to overeat in the first place.

Phillips: "We're beginning to get reports about people who have had this surgery, smaller stomach, but still have a problem with emotional eating. Is that still an issue for you?"

Roker: "Yeah, oh yeah. If I get upset or whatever, I mean, the urge is less because I know that whatever is upsetting me, I can't really use food to make me feel better. Because, I'm only going to be able to eat a little bit. And then I probably will feel worse, both physically and emotionally."

Phillips: "So, you would eat when you were anxious?"

Roker: "Yeah."

Phillips: "You eat when you were feeling bad?"

Roker: When I was upset."

Phillips: "So what do to you now, Al?  What's replaced that? Have you found something to replace food?"

Roker: "Yeah.  Up to a certain extent I think exercise. I think looking within. You know, one of the things that they start with on this is that you have to do some psychological work, you know, I've done some therapy. I mean, to find what those triggers are and how to deal with it. The surgery doesn't change what's in here. Whatever made you gain weight to begin with, whatever demons, whether it was unhappy at work, whether you were married to somebody you didn't like, whether you weren't happy with yourself, for whatever reason, those things won't go away."

Phillips: "You're a self-described food lover. I mean, you do cookbooks, you do shows on the Food Network.  I mean, is it just a form of self-torture, Al? I mean, why do you surround yourself with all of that, when this is an issue for you?"

Roker:  "People have said, Jesus, it's like making an alcoholic a bartender, you know. You're doing these cooking shows. You do these cookbooks. But the fact is unlike alcoholism, you can live, you can survive without taking a drink. You got to eat. And in a way-- not in a way. I really believe I appreciate food far more now, because I have to make what I put in my mouth count. So it had better be darn good. It better be of the best quality. Before, it was just you know, open my mouth. It's a whale, bringing in, plankton."

Al knows that his very public experience with the weight loss surgery has lead some people to view him as an advocate for the operation, a role he has tried to avoid.

Roker: "I have not gone out and touted this thing. It's a dangerous operation. I mean people are rearranging your internal plumbing."

His qualms about being perceived as a spokesperson for the procedure prompted him to report the story about Jennifer Butler and her husband Mike who died from complications following gastric bypass surgery.

Phillips: "What was it like for you to talk to Jennifer Butler?"

Roker: "It was hard in that here's somebody who lost their life partner, and was expecting that what he did was going to actually extend their life together."

Phillips:  "Same hopes that you had?"

Roker: "Yeah. Same things."

Al took a special interest in this story because, as we explained, right before Mike went for the surgery he had emailed Al for information about the operation. At the time, Al was still keeping quiet about his own surgery and in his response just wished Mike luck.

Roker: "And you know, I sometimes say, well, maybe I wasn't realistic enough in the e-mail. Maybe I should have been much more persuasive in saying, hey, really think about this. But, you know, it was hard. I mean, I felt so badly for her."

It was a profound loss in Al's life that helped inspire his weight loss. He often recalls that shortly before his father died in 2001 he made Al promise to finally conquer his weight problem, to make sure he would be there for his children. To this day it's a bittersweet recollection.

Phillips: "You've said many times that a part of why you lost this weight was keeping a promise to your dad. When you look in the mirror today, you think he's smiling?"

Roker: "I know he is, in that we and our little boy, our Nicky, we found out we were pregnant with him about six or seven days after my dad died. And he'll grin and I see my dad, you know. And look, I'm not as young a father as my dad was. My dad was, you know, a very young dad. I've got a two year old, and I'm 50 years old. And I want to be around as long as I can for him."

Phillips: "And you're going to be around for a while?"

Roker: "Yeah."

Phillips: "Thanks to the weight loss and sticking to the plan."

Roker: “Yeah."