Former U-M Football Player Says Going Vegan Changed His Life, Reversed Diabetes

Credit: Forks Over Knives

It’s been 30 years since Marc Ramirez was recruited to play football for the University of Michigan Wolverines.

The 6’2″ right guard from the Chicago area came here in 1986 to join Michigan’s offensive line, playing under legendary coach Bo Schembechler.

Jim Harbaugh, who is now the team’s head coach following a career in the NFL, was the quarterback Ramirez’s freshman year.

“It was just an amazing experience here,” Ramirez said. “The first time running out of that tunnel, I’ll never forget it — 1986, it was against Oregon State. It really was an amazing feeling just running out of that tunnel. Bo has got the whole team pumped up. You’re so pumped up, and you are fired up. It just felt like I was floating.”

Because he was so physically active, Ramirez said he didn’t really have any health problems back then.

That changed in the years after he graduated from U-M in 1990. No longer a college athlete, he eventually became out of shape and was diagnosed as diabetic, and he was taking various medications to manage his health problems.

But for more than four years now, he’s been sticking to a whole-food, plant-based diet, no longer taking any medications, and he says he’s never felt healthier.

“When I played football here at Michigan, I was 305 pounds,” he said. “Today, at 48 years old, I weigh 210 pounds, so I’m almost 100 pounds lighter, and I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life at this point. I feel great.”

Ramirez said doctors don’t consider him diabetic anymore because his blood sugar levels are no longer in what they consider the diabetic range.

“However, I think if I went back to eating the way I used to, I’m quite sure I’d get sick over time, just like I did before,” he said.

Ramirez is now sharing his story to help others understand there is hope of reversing type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

He and his wife, Kim, whom he met at U-M in 1989, both went fully vegan in December 2011.

“Up until that point, I was eating all kinds of animal products,” Ramirez said. “I saw ‘Forks Over Knives,’ and it triggered something in my brain that said, ‘Hey, this kind of makes sense, let me try this.’ ”

About a year and a half ago, they started a nonprofit organization called Chickpea and Bean Inc., and they now put on events and hold regular meetings to help others understand what they’ve come to learn about the power of food.

They live in Clinton Township, near Sterling Heights, and hold meetings at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library on Romeo Plank Road.

“We’ve had about 14 meetings. They’re free. They’re open to anyone who wants to come listen and learn,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez is encouraging those interested in learning how to improve their health and reverse type 2 diabetes to participate in an online Diabetes Perspectives Summit from March 10-23. It’s a free 14-day program featuring interviews with doctors and other health experts. Ramirez is sharing his story as part of it.

“They’re interviews and you listen to these experts talk about how they have helped people for decades,” he said. “These doctors and nurses and nutritionists have been doing this for decades. They’ve been helping people improve their health.”

Ramirez, who comes from a large Mexican family with a history of chronic illness, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, said he once believed it was in his genes to become diabetic and there was nothing he could do about it.

He grew up in Texas with four brothers and three sisters, and most of them have struggled with diabetes.

As a young adult, Ramirez witnessed his mother’s battle with diabetes. She suffered from kidney failure, vision problems and heart disease.

“My mother was diabetic for over 33 years and ultimately did a kidney transplant,” he said. “She was legally blind. She was doing dialysis and insulin shots for many, many years. Ultimately, she needed a double bypass because of the foods we ate, and she never recovered from the double bypass.”

In 2002, she died at the age of 61.

Ramirez’s oldest brother, David, also died in 2002 at the age of 41 due to pancreatic cancer.

His twin brother, Joe, has battled diabetes for more than a decade and had a heart attack a little over a year ago. He’s taking multiple medications.

Two of his sisters have struggled with diabetes.

His youngest sister, Sandra, has been diabetic for more than a decade, taking multiple medications and insulin shots now.

Martin, his youngest sibling, was diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager and is 44 now.

“He’s the sickest of us all,” Ramirez said. “He’s had his right leg amputated, a pancreas and kidney transplant. He’s legally blind. He does dialysis right now three times a week, and he takes 25 medications every single day.”

Given his family history, Ramirez said he thought he was headed down the same path.

“In fact, in 2002, the year my mother died, they also advised me that I was now diabetic and that I needed to start taking medications,” he said. “So, having seen what had happened to my family, I said, ‘Hold on a minute. Let me try to eat better. Let me try to exercise more. Let me see if I can hold this at bay.’ ”

For the next couple of years, Ramirez tried everything — counting carbs, counting calories, portion control, different diets and techniques.

“And nothing really seemed to work,” he said. “So, in 2004, I started taking medicines. Start with the pills. Then as time goes on, the dosages go up.”

Fast forward to 2011, and Ramirez was taking two insulin shots a day, plus two pills for diabetes, a pill for high blood pressure and a pill for high cholesterol.

On top of that, Ramirez said he had erectile dysfunction, psoriasis really bad all over his scalp, and severe heartburn three or four times a week.

“So, I had come to this point in my life where I was just feeling a little depressed, to be honest with you,” he said. “Depressed at seeing my brother having gone through his amputation and all the devastation in my family, and we’re now looking at, ‘OK, this is my future. I’m going to be preparing for transplants and blindness.’ ”

That’s when Ramirez and his wife watched the documentary “Forks Over Knives,” a film that examines the idea of food as medicine and reversing chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes by rejecting animal-based and processed foods and switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet. They also read the book “Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes.”

“And those two things, for less than $40, basically changed the whole trajectory of my family’s future,” Ramirez said. “On Dec. 3, 2011, my wife and I adopted a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle, and we cut cold turkey. In fact, we came to Seva here in Ann Arbor, and that’s where we had one of our first meals on that day.”

Within days, he said, he started feeling healthier, more energetic, and the excess weight on his body started to drop off.

“You fast forward two months later, I had lost 35 pounds in two months, and I was now off all five of my medications, not taking insulin shots or any of the pills,” he said. “My cholesterol plummeted like crazy. My sugars were in line.”

Another month later, he lost 10 more pounds and continued to feel healthier. He hasn’t taken any medications since January 2012.

“So, here I am a little over four years later, still medication-free, my sugars are great, my cholesterol is great, blood pressure is great,” he said.

In his post-college years, back when he wasn’t so healthy, Ramirez said he weighed about 280 pounds. He’s now down to 210.

He said he works out about three hours a week, doing a little bit of cardio and some weight lifting, and a little bit of stretching and meditation each day. But, he cautions, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.

“Because I’m not eating all those high-fat, high-saturated, high-cholesterol foods, my body stays in pretty good shape,” he said. “I feel like I’m back in my 20s and 30s now. It’s amazing how your entire life can change.”

After founding Chickpea and Bean, Ramirez and his wife started holding free monthly meetings for anyone interested in attending in January 2015.

“We try to raise awareness and help people understand the benefits of a plant-based diet,” he said. “We are seeing time and time again, as people come to these meetings, because we’ve been having them for a little over a year now, people losing weight, getting off medications, feeling better, and that’s what energizes my wife and I to continue down this path.”

At a meeting last month, they were joined by Victor Katch, who recently retired from U-M’s School of Kinesiology, where he taught nutrition and exercise.

Ramirez also organized an event in Ann Arbor back in October, bringing in Dr. Thomas Campbell, co-author of “The China Study,” to give a lecture to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Michigan Theater.

Ramirez, an area manager for AT&T by day, still has strong ties to U-M and Ann Arbor. He comes back for alumni events and football games. His daughter graduated from U-M last year and his son is a sophomore.

Ramirez and his wife would like to eventually establish a wellness center in Ann Arbor, and possibly see if they can even do some studies here locally on people who have diabetes and work with them to improve their health. He said it could benefit U-M students and employees, as well as the broader community.

“We are talking to a few people now to see if that might be something that can come to fruition,” he said.

Ramirez said they’re hoping it might be something the university would support and they’re reaching out to U-M’s School of Public Health and School of Kinesiology. He graduated from U-M with a degree in kinesiology.

Through the Michigan Football Alumni Network, they’re also trying to see if there’s a way to do more work with former athletes.

“Because as we get to these reunions and gatherings of former players, there are some folks who I know could use some help,” he said.

“There’s one in particular,” he added, recalling a former player he helped. “A little over a year and a half ago, he reached out to me. He was diabetic. In six months, he lost 80 pounds … and his doctor said he was not diabetic anymore.

“So, he was able to turn around quickly. He quickly reached out and said, ‘Hey, my doctor says I’m diabetic. What did you do? What can I do?’ And we keep hearing those stories time and time again. And so I’m passionate about it, and I know, if there’s one message, it’s don’t let genes determine your fate. Because I was on that path. I thought my genes were my fate and I couldn’t do anything about diabetes, and there’s so much that we can do if we simply look at the foods we eat.”

Ramirez said he follows three basic guidelines for eating: He doesn’t eat any animal products, he eats low-fat foods, and he avoids high-glycemic foods.

He says on his website that he enjoys foods such as oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins, pasta prima vera with marinara sauce, bean burritos with jalapeno peppers, veggie subs, veggie burgers, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

“One of the main questions I get all the time is, ‘Where do you get your protein?’ Protein is in just about every food you can think of, and so you will get all of the protein you need by eating a wide variety of plant-based foods,” he said. “I mean, when you look at pictures of me, I’ve been doing this over four years now, and I’m in the best shape of my life. I haven’t had any animal products in over four years. You get everything you need from a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle.”

He notes it’s not a low-carb diet. He says carbs aren’t the enemy, high-fat foods are, as fat gets in cells and prevents insulin and glucose from working properly.

Ramirez said his wife is his rock and makes most of the food. Together, they’re looking to continue to raise awareness.

They’re both Food for Life instructors through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine started by Dr. Neal Barnard.

“So, we do hold classes where we actually teach people how to live this lifestyle, how to make a lot of the foods, and also go over a lot of the science behind Dr. Barnard’s research,” Ramirez said.

“We are just trying to continue to educate any and everybody who’s willing to listen, who’s sick of being sick. If you’re tired of taking these pills — just look at the commercials we see on TV. ‘Hey, take this pill.’ But it’s got 20 side effects, right? And so, I get tired of hearing, ‘Let’s help you manage diabetes.’ Why manage it if you have the opportunity to potentially reverse it or stop it in its tracks?”