From 240 to 176 lbs.: How Rosie O'Donnell Lost 64 Lbs. in 2 Years

Rosie O'Donnell opens up to PEOPLE about her weight loss journey

Photo: Ernesto Di Stefano Photography/WireImage; Mike Pont/Getty Images

Even with extreme stress in her personal life, Rosie O’Donnell refuses to compromise her health any longer – and has been rewarded with a 64-lb. weight loss.

The work required to drop to 176 lbs. from a high of 240 after vertical gastric sleeve surgery in 2013 grew easier as time passed, O’Donell, 53, told PEOPLE exclusively Monday night at Rosie’s Theater Kids Gala in New York, benefiting O’Donnell’s namesake nonprofit. (Also attending to show support: Her reported on-off love interest Tatum O’Neal).

While hosting the event, which honored Kristin Chenoweth and featured performances by some of the children benefited by the organization, O’Donnell – who’s recently endured a high-profile divorce, the death of her father and struggles with her daughter Chelsea – joked that weighing 240 lbs. is “like the Green Bay Packers’ front line, know what I mean? But it’s hard. I used to buy stretch pants size 11, 12. I’d stretch them into a 20. It didn t matter, because the tag said 12 and that’s what counts.”

The star said the procedure helped stem her appetite and kept her from scavenging her children’s Halloween candy this year.

“Believe it or not, that surgery changed my life,” she told PEOPLE on the red carpet, where she posed for photos with O’Neal and three of her children: Blake, 15, Parker, 20, and Vivienne, 12. “It doesn’t reroute your intestines. You have no issue with going to the bathroom in public. But your relationship with food ends.

“For me, it’s been two years. It used to be on Halloween, the week before, I would start sweating until Christmas, because I had huge problems not going and stealing their candy,” she added. “I couldn’t be in bed and go downstairs there would be four bags of candy. I couldn’t help myself.”

And now? “This year, the whole trick-or-treat, I had one lollipop,” she said. “I don’t feel that same pull for it. They told me the part of the stomach they remove have hunger hormones in it, called ghrelins. And that changes the way you think and feel about food. I feel so much freer now in terms of needing to move and play with my kids.”

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The benefits of weight loss, she said, are countless.

“I don’t have sleep apnea anymore. I’m able to run and play with the kids or get a bathing suit. It’s not easy to be obese in America and have everyone feel free to ridicule you,” she said. “When I was in the midst of some of my spat wars with some Republican candidates, that was always one of the first things that was said.

“And now it’s like a different reality. We’ll see how long it lasts.”

Though she’s not afraid to laugh about tough topics, the subject of the 2012 heart attack that spurred her weight loss is no joke.

“I had a heart attack at 50,” she said. “When I woke up, they said, ‘You should have died.’ Doctors said, ‘We need you to lose 50 lbs. in the next year, but you can t have surgery or anything in the next year because you ve had a heart attack.’

“So for the year I tried, and I ve been trying my whole life. When I was 35 I got on my show, and that s when I got over 200 lbs. Before that I was about 175, on League of Their Own, or 170. When I got my show I was over 200. It was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. And then one year after my heart attack I had the vertical sleeve surgery because my doctors said if I didn’t, I would have another heart attack. And there was a very good chance I would not survive.”

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