Lorraine Bracco was not having a good year.
At 55, the former Sopranos actress watched helplessly as both her parents battled illnesses that ultimately took their lives.
“You expect your parents to die, but it was really hard to watch them in and out of doctors and hospitals as their bodies fail – and both at the same time,” Bracco tells PEOPLE of how she spent her 2011.
The actress – who was also going through menopause – says she felt “a lot of grief” after losing her parents but did not realize the physical toll the loss took on her as well.
“I blew up,” Bracco says of gaining 35 lbs. “All of a sudden, none of my clothes fit. I was, like, ‘What happened to me?!’ I thought the cleaners shrunk all my clothes.”
And so, with her parents’ health issues and the 2013 death of her Sopranos costar James Gandolfini in mind, Bracco set out to change her life.
“I just said, ‘Oh, God. I don’t want to go out like that. I don’t want to be at the doctor every other day,’ ” she says. “I decided to take control of my life.”
Bracco says she “jump-started” her new life with a two-week cleanse.
“All of a sudden, I started to have more energy and less aches and pains,” she says. “I decided I was going to continue to eat clean eat closest to the source, no processed foods. Protein, veggies and fruits. Fresh, fresh, fresh.”
Over the next year, Bracco, now 60, continued to trade out old favorites like “bags of licorice” for healthier options like quinoa and gradually lost all the weight she had gained.
“There is no quick fix in losing weight,” she says. “I don’t care what people advertise. It is just so unfair and false. Slow and steady wins the race.”
Bracco now hopes to inspire others to begin their own weight-loss journeys through her new self-help book To the Fullest: The Clean Up Your Act Plan to Lose Weight, Rejuvenate, and Be the Best You Can Be.
“I’m interested in helping women my age who are 60 and still have a long way to go,” she says. “We’re living longer but we’re living unhealthy. That’s not good. And it’s never too late to change that.”
She continues, “For me, aging is like a car going down a hill. I can’t really stop it so I’m just trying to put the brakes on. I want to have energy. I want to be healthy. I want to go out fighting.”
For more of our interview with Lorraine Bracco, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday