December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Al Roker is used to fans commenting on his weight. But a recent encounter left him scratching his head. “One guy said, ‘On TV lately you look very gaunt. But in person you look better,’ ” recalls the Today weatherman. “I was like, gaunt? ‘What are you, an alien? Are you crazy?’ ”

Okay, gaunt he’s not, but by now even Plutonians might well have noticed the dramatic change in Roker’s size. One year after he first told PEOPLE about the March 2002 gastric-bypass surgery that led to his remarkable 120-lb. weight loss, Roker, 49, is feeling lighter than ever. “I feel great,” says the 5’8″ morning star, who fluctuates “6 or 7 lbs.” from his current weight of 200 lbs. “I’m happy.”

And yet surprisingly, Roker says he still feels a certain amount of guilt over undergoing the surgery, which limited the number of calories his body can absorb by reducing his stomach to the size of an egg and bypassing a portion of his small intestine. “I think it’s more impressive when people lose this amount of weight the old-fashioned way, you know?” he says. “My surgeon will scream when I say this, but I still inwardly kind of feel that it’s a bit of a cheat—that I couldn’t do this on my own. That said, I’d tried for Lord knows how long.”

Those closest to him are just relieved that he’s finally on a healthier track. “I don’t think as a family we have any regrets” about the surgery, says his wife, 20/20 correspondent Deborah Roberts, 43. “He really is on his way to getting control of his life. I’ve never seen him happier.” Adds his mom, Isabel, 69: “He’s the same old Al, but I think he feels marvelous.” And with his trimmer figure, “he’s become a clotheshorse,” says Roberts. “He really enjoys the notion that he can walk into a store and pick out a cool new jacket or a pair of cargo pants.”

Such everyday thrills have become common for Roker in the past year and a half. “It’s the little things that other people take for granted,” he says. “Now I can just up and get out of a chair.” Playtime with his kids—Nicholas, 16 months, Leila, 5, and Courtney, 16—is also easier. “We went to Miami during the summer and just to watch him dive into the pool and fool around with Leila—it was fabulous,” says Isabel.

There have been bigger victories as well. This May he rode 42 miles in the Great Five Boro Bike Tour of New York City. In the past, he says, “I maybe could have driven it. I could never have ridden it.” Finishing in a respectable 4½ hours “felt pretty good.”

As does his healthier new eating regimen. Since the surgery, which is only recommended for those who are more than 100 lbs. overweight, Roker has had to adjust to eating far smaller portions than he did for most of his life. Nowadays food “is still pleasurable. It’s just less of it,” he says. “I’ll be in the supermarket, and people will say, ‘What are you doing here?’ Buying food! I do have to eat.” As for those frequent cooking segments on Today, “before, I’d eat the whole plate. Now, if I take a bite on air, that’s pretty much it.”

Despite his success with the surgery, Roker is cautious about endorsing it for others, especially given the operation’s l-in-200 fatality rate. “I tell people, ‘You have to search your soul and come up with your own decision.’ ” And Roberts notes that it’s not always the quick-and-easy fix some might think. “Like anyone who’s recovering, if s still a day-to-day adjustment,” she says of her husband. “He’s really got to make choices to try to keep things on track.”

The surgery may not be foolproof, but for Roker, it was the right call: “My thing is always, ‘Gee, why did I wait so long to do it?’ But I think it was all about timing.” Although he’s still considered overweight—his surgeon says Roker’s ideal weight is between 160 and 180 lbs.—he is pleased with his current size. “I feel like I’m in a place now where I can live for the rest of my life and be happy,” he says. “It’s a good place to be.”

Michelle Tauber. Mark Dagostino in New York City

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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