How Former U-M Football Star Marc Ramirez Tackled Diabetes
That feeling took a nosedive at age 34 when Marc was diagnosed with diabetes. Eventually, he was on insulin shots and took four oral medications for diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. He also had psoriasis, frequent heartburn and erectile dysfunction. “I was a physical mess,” he remembers.
Diabetes hit home early
Growing up in Texas as one of eight children of a divorced mother, Marc saw it firsthand. His mom battled the disease for 30 years, and seven of the eight children in his immediate family also live with diabetes. His brother takes 25 medications daily to control the disease, which left him blind and without a right leg. His sister, the only sibling without diabetes, donated a kidney to their mother – who passed away in 2002, five years after the transplant.
As a child, Marc remembers money being tight, and sometimes his mom struggled to keep food on the table. “We ate a lot of beans, rice and eggs, many made with a huge scoop of vegetable oil,” he recalls. “We’d snack on tortillas with butter or cheese quesadillas – all high in fat and cholesterol. Mom meant well, but she didn’t know.”
A need for insulin shots brought Marc to a turning point in 2011, the same year his brother had his leg amputated. “I realized that I was on the road where one day I might have to ask my children to give me one of their kidneys, much like what had happened with my mom,” he explains. “I didn’t want to ever have to ask that of them.”
Knowledge brings the power to change
Searching for answers, Marc and Kim – his college sweetheart he married in 1992 – began reading everything they could about diabetes.
“Two things changed my family’s health trajectory,” he says. “My wife and I saw the documentary ‘Forks over Knives’ and we read ‘Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes,’ both of which recommend a plant-based diet. We figured we’d give it a try.”
He knew for some time that he had to make a change. “When I look back to how I used to feel, I was always tired and emotional,” he says. For Marc, removing animal products from his diet brought a quick improvement in his blood sugar. After two months, he had lost 35 pounds and no longer needed his medications.
“When I was diagnosed, the doctor told me I’d be on insulin the rest of my life,” he said. “After he saw the changes in my sugar and high blood pressure, he told me I was his star patient.”
The rest of his immediate family has gradually embraced the meatless lifestyle, too. Even his college-age son, Mark, is now a vegetarian. His extended family is slowly changing the way they eat, too. “I have learned that it’s not only because I am Mexican or because my family is predisposed to diabetes that I have this disease,” he says. “It all comes down to the daily choices I make.”
Teaching others to tackle diabetes
Now that Marc has been medication-free for more than four years, he and Kim are on a mission to share their experience with others who may also be struggling with diabetes. Their website, Chickpea and Bean, offers recipes and pep talks for others interested in making positive changes. Marc and Kim are Food for Life instructors through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They hold monthly meetings at the library near their Clinton Township home to encourage others and answer questions. They're even hoping to take their experience back to the University of Michigan (where they met) and work with former football players to teach them about healthy eating.
Their new philosophy has changed more than just their waistlines. “It has really changed our outlook on life,” Marc says. “We feel so much more positive now.”
The couple was recently interviewed with actor Samuel L. Jackson and director James Cameron for a new documentary called “Eating You Alive,” which promotes a plant-based diet. They realize giving up hamburgers and mac and cheese might be difficult, but it’s a change worth considering for people who are “sick of being sick.”
“I always knew that diabetes was common in the Hispanic community,” Marc says, “but thought there was nothing I could do about it. I wish someone had told me there was another way. If you have tried different things that didn't work, take a look at your lifestyle. I know it’s not an easy change, but if you can embrace this, it just might change your life. It did for me.”
Diabetes by the numbers
HAP’s Connie Porter, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator, says that the 2014 “National Statistics Diabetes Report” from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that 9.3 percent of the U.S. population – some 29.1 million people – have diabetes and 8.1 million are undiagnosed.
Porter says a healthy diet can make a difference. “Health is so impacted by the choices we make,” she says. “While all persons benefit from a healthy diet – one based on fruits and vegetables, lean protein, low fat and limited refined sugar products – people who have diabetes (or a family history of diabetes) benefit greatly. Obesity is one of the largest contributing factors. Coordination with your health care provider is key.”
Porter notes that a plant-based diet like the one followed by Ramirez is a good option for some people but may not be for everyone. “Nutrition is a very personal experience,” she says. “Plant-based diets can be beneficial, but they do not guarantee that you will maintain healthy blood sugars.”
Her top recommendations for someone with diabetes looking to improve his or her condition? First and foremost, work closely with your doctor to develop a plan that fits you. “If you’re overweight, lose weight. Limit sugar, and add physical activity every day, even if it’s a 15-minute walk,” she says.