Brian Rodgers, 48, has been transformed. He’s lost 150 pounds, no longer has a half-dozen chronic illnesses and has waged a fight against childhood obesity.
Ask him how he did it, and the man from Kansas City will tell you, it’s all about the barbecue sauce.
A passion for good barbecue
Folks from Kansas City, as we Coloradans know, speak of barbecue sauce with the same reverence they speak about their Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City, after all, is the birthplace of dry-rubbed barbecue drizzled in tomato-molasses sauce. Since “Barbecue King” Henry Perry opened the first barbecue joint in the early 1900s, hundreds – maybe thousands more – have followed.
As a kid, Rodgers couldn’t get enough barbecue.
“We were a low-income family in Kansas City proper,” Rodgers explained. “No one in particular (in his family) was a good cook, so we ate out a lot. I played baseball my whole life and grew up eating barbecue after every game.”
His family’s habits and enjoyment of fine barbecue eventually took a toll on their health. By the time Rodgers was 40 years old, he had hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, and he was so fatigued he had a hard time participating in activities with his kids.
“I was always heavier as a child — a little overweight compared to everyone else around me, but I was good at sports so that helped a bit,” he said.
Rodgers excelled at baseball. He traveled all over the country playing the sport and there was always a team chef in tow. He uses “chef” loosely, explaining that the team chef was just the man on the bus who cooked for the team. He often cooked barbecue.
“I got very interested in barbecue at that time — we were like a traveling barbecue roadshow where we ended up not just feeding our team most of the time,” Rodgers said.
He went to college on a baseball scholarship, eventually ending up at Florida International University. Although he lost some weight during that time, it wasn’t long after college that he began gaining weight again.
His love of barbecue remained a constant in his life. Cooking barbecue became a “side life” and he spent weekends competing in barbecue competitions. Eventually, he began catering events and one event played a significant role in how he finally lost weight and struck out his chronic diseases.
An introduction to plant-based eating
Rodgers lived in Kansas City until 2016, then moved to Colorado. In 2017, he was hired to cook barbecue for about 500 people.
“I could cook that much (barbecue) in my sleep,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers purchased his weight in meat – about 300 pounds at the time. Then, he got a call that set him on a new path.
“About three days before the event, the organizer called me to tell me that half the people were plant-based, vegan or on a special diet… I was freaking out at that point,” he said.
Rodgers would learn very quickly about the state’s plant-based and vegan communities. His barbecue friends recommended that he provide the vegan crowd with salad and side options since there was little time to prepare.
“I did research and found out what all this (vegan) stuff was, then I took my recipes and did half (meat) and half (plant-based foods),” Rodgers said. “I usually show up and drop off my food as I’m 100% confident in my barbecue. But this time I stayed because I was curious to see what they would say.”
The response was fantastic.
“People couldn’t believe that it was plant-based,” he said. “Many hadn’t ever had real barbecue because it’s never been an option for them.”
A seed had been planted in Rodgers’ mind: Could plant-based barbecue work?
Must I give up the food I love for plant-based eating?
Fast-forward to 2018. Rodgers continued his career as a computer programmer — working from his Colorado home, plumped down in a chair with the refrigerator just steps away. He continued to cook and cater barbecue on the side.
Because of his move to Colorado, his medical insurance changed and he was forced to find a new primary care physician. He found Dr. Peter Smith at UCHealth.
“When I first met Brian in 2018 he was about 265 pounds,” Smith said. “His BMI was over 40, he had several comorbidities including hypertension, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, and he was fatigued and unable to participate in the activities he wanted to do. He was snoring — probably sleep apnea — and he was frustrated.”
Rodgers had spent his life trying different diets — from appetite depressants and diet programs to intense exercise and calorie counting. Smith conducted a “motivational interview” with Rodgers to understand his goals and create a plan to achieve them.
“So many patients are aware of the health risks (of obesity), and they need to be knowledgeable about those risks, but I like to focus on the good things that can happen with weight loss. I’ve found that fear — fear of things in the distant future — are not the best motivators,” Smith said. “For Brian, he was starting to be limited in his ability to participate in sports with his family. He loves skiing, and he sees himself as an active person, but his size was becoming a real barrier. He was envisioning a long active and healthy life and those goals were at risk.”
To meet his goals, a change in diet was necessary. Would he have to give up barbecue?
Rodgers was referred to the UCHealth bariatrics program because of continued health risks and failed attempts to rectify them. He agreed to attend a three-hour informational session on weight-loss surgery.
Is bariatric surgery the right solution?
Candidates for bariatric surgery undergo a physiological evaluation and attend educational courses, a process that can take up to six months.
“Patients who qualify need to demonstrate a certain amount of weight loss before they qualify and meet a physiological profile because surgery is no magic tool — it’s one tool in a comprehensive approach,” Smith said.
Rodgers attended the class and learned about portion sizes and nutrition. He also learned that his taste buds might change — he might no longer enjoy the foods he had always consumed.
“I was told I might not like barbecue anymore and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s it for me.’ It triggered a switch in my mind,” Rodgers said. “I left that session and went back to Dr. Smith and said ‘this is not for me.’”
Smith and Rodgers worked together to set up a weight-loss plan that didn’t include surgery. Smith suggested a Mediterranean diet. Rodgers went all in, giving up oils, meat and dairy, in addition to processed foods. Rodgers agreed to monthly blood work to monitor his progress. His new lifestyle would also include walking, not the high-intensity exercise that would require more time or a gym membership. Rodgers knew it was a dramatic change.
He got an Apple watch and started walking, the first day to the end of the block and back.
“By the time I got to the end of the block, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I was so disappointed in myself. But the next day I did it again and got up to where I walk 3 miles a day.”
Rodgers said he focused on meals he already made, such as pizza, and figured out how to make them as low calorie and as healthy as he could.
He tracked his calories. Based on what he learned at the bariatrics meeting he knew he needed to decrease his calorie intake.
“The first 30 days I thought I was going to die,” he said. “But then it changed.
“The biggest thing I learned in the first 30 days is you’re going to be hungry some of the time,” he continued. “You’ve got to get over these ‘panic attacks’ … I needed something besides exercise to do because that was already a part of my routine. These attacks are serious and losing 100 pounds and reversing my diseases, I needed to divert my attention from these attacks. So I started another side business — I wanted to reinvent barbecue.”
Transforming barbecue into a plant-based diet option
Rodgers began researching and found that plant-based barbecue didn’t exist — at least not the world-class Kansas City barbecue he loved. He reread some of the testimonials from the large event comprised of many plant-based eaters and decided to revisit his plant-based recipes to see what made them so successful.
“There are a lot of elements to barbecue,” Rodgers said. “Many think, ‘Isn’t all barbecue (sauces/rubs) plant-based.’ But most are not and most are not very healthy. The honey and Worcestershire sauces disqualify it as plant-based and there are tons of sugar, salt and other preservatives that aren’t natural.”
Rodgers hasn’t turned against the barbecue he enjoyed for so many years — he’s “neither here nor there when it comes to what others choose to eat,” but he wanted to make something for people who, like him, have committed to plant-based eating.
Rodgers’ said his kitchen became a scene out of “Dexter” as he tested about 30 different barbecue sauces until he finally found a heavenly concoction. From that, he developed “Fools Gold,” a nonprofit company that creates plant-based barbecue sauces and rubs, using proceeds to battle childhood obesity.
Along the way, a new CEO named Brian Rodgers emerged. He’s lost 150 pounds – kept it off – and no longer has six life-threatening chronic illnesses. He has written a book about his experiences and again is traveling around the country. He has a blog and a podcast and tells stories about losing weight and the enjoyment of, you guessed it, plant-based barbecue.