"There are people who say you couldn't be President because you're so heavy," Barbara Walters told Chris Christie in December - voicing a thought many have had since New Jersey's governor emerged as a star at last year's GOP convention and after Superstorm Sandy. "Ridiculous!" he huffed. He has always laughed off fat jokes: At the April 27 White House Correspondents' Dinner, he chortled as Conan O'Brien cracked that the waiter at Christie's table "is gonna lose an arm!" And while he gamely ate a doughnut on David Letterman's Feb. 4 show, he insisted he is "the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen."
But secretly Christie, 50, was preparing for a big change. "Even though he's healthy, his doctors were saying that, at some point, this is going to catch up with you," his communications director Maria Comella tells PEOPLE. So on Feb. 16 he checked into an N.Y.C. hospital for lap-band surgery, a 40-minute procedure to place a ring at the top of the stomach and make patients feel full faster. Christie, a dad of four, told the New York Post
his reasons for the surgery were "more important" than politics: "This is about ... my children and wanting to be there for them."
So far the outward change has been subtle. To lose half of his extra weight "takes from 18 months to three years," says Dr. James McGinty, chief of bariatric surgery at St Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. To hit that goal, "eating proper portions and increasing exercise are very important."
The governor, says a close source, "wakes up every day with a plan to eat healthy and exercise. Some days he's successful. Others, not so much." As Christie said after being hospitalized for asthma in 2011, "I weigh too much because I eat too much." But he's trying. When a guest interrupted Christie at the correspondents' dinner, he gestured to his half-eaten filet mignon. "That's okay," he said. "I'm done."
- with Mary Green.