updated 07/15/2013 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 07/16/2013 AT 4:00 PM ET
MasterChef judge Graham Elliot has a very good reason for missing out on Tuesday night’s All-Stars baseball game.
Instead of joining the winners of the challenge from last week’s show, he will be recovering from major weight loss surgery.
This Tuesday morning, the 6’2” acclaimed chef, 36, underwent a sleeve gastrectomy after nearly hitting 400 pounds.
“Weight is something I’ve battled all my life,” says Elliot, who spoke to PEOPLE just days before the laparoscopic surgery. “It’s hard to get in and out of a car, tie my shoe or play with my kids.”
“This is what I need to do for my family, adds the father of three sons, Mylo, 6, Conrad, 2½, and 10-month-old Jedediah.
“What’s going to make me healthy is the most important thing right now so I can enjoy my kids and be around long enough to see them grow up.”
Elliot went under the knife for a sleeve gastrectomy, an hour-long procedure where the doctor removes about 80 percent of the patient’s stomach and creates a small sleeve-shaped stomach the size of a banana.
“I will feel full quicker because my stomach is that much smaller,” explains Elliot. “I won’t need six cheeseburgers to feel full.”
The Chicago-based chef, who became the youngest 4-star chef in the U.S. at the age of 27, notes that his career was also a consideration.
“Because of my line of work, the doctor specifically thinks this is the surgery best suited for me,” he says. “With gastric bypass and other surgeries, there’s some ingredients you can’t eat because it will cause you to get sick. This procedure will allow me to still taste and try everything.
Elliot tells PEOPLE that he’s mulled having some form of weight loss surgery since 2005 but ultimately made the decision after speaking with his doctor earlier this year.
“It was a relief that somebody was helping me make this decision and stick with it,” he says. “It’s like I’m somebody who is way past their prime and that shouldn’t be the case at 36. Throw in gout and high blood pressure and the history of strokes and heart attacks in my family … this is something that has to happen.”
To prepare for the surgery, Elliot met with a nutritionist and a psychologist and over a week ago switched to a daily 1,000-calorie diet consisting mostly of broth and protein shakes.
“It’s horrible,” admits the chef, who is known for fancier fare like butter-poached lobster with gelée of lemon vinegar and stuffed beignets at his three Chicago restaurants. “I’m used to eating four times the amount. I’m tired and cranky but at the same time I’m more focused and driven than I’ve ever been.”
Looking towards the future is helping to fuel that motivation. Elliot says doctors predict he could lose up to 100 pounds in six months.
“My biggest goal is to start running,” he says of his future plans. “I’m super excited to run miles on a treadmill.”
His MasterChef co-judges Gordon Ramsay and PEOPLE.com blogger Joe Bastianich are also proving to be helpful in that matter.
“I get inspiration from both these guys,” says Elliot. “[On the set] I’ve got them both talking about how they run marathons. They tell me, ‘You’ve got to lose weight and change your life.’ ”
Ultimately though, it was the motivation at home that persuaded Elliot.
“My sons are very happy that I m going to be able to play with them like my 61-year-old Dad. He s a fit guy who likes to wrestle with my kids.
MasterChef airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on FOX.