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Is Being a Health Expert Bad for Your Health?

Jack Lalanne: an exception to the “rule” that health gurus die younger?

It’s a rather shocking observation that health gurus  that those who write diet books and give advice on how to live healthy longer appear to live shorter lives than the average person.

They seem to be beaten only by rock stars, who have an average life expectancy of 42 years old for American rock stars, and 35 for European ones!

This is not based on any scientific data, so it may not well be true. However, it’s an interesting discussion that leads to important questions.

Some Examples of Health Experts Who Died Younger Than You Would Expect:

Michel Montignac, a very famous Frenchman who promoted a healthy diet based on the concept of the glycemic index, died at 66 of cancer. He was the inspiration behind the “South Beach Diet.”

Dr. Atkins, probably the most famous diet guru in the world (who weighed 258 lbs at 6 feet tall), died after spending 9 days in a coma at the age of 72 from a slip on the ice. The medical examiner noted that in his health files he had previously suffered a heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. As no autopsy was performed, it cannot be confirmed if any of these previous ailments affected his inability to recover from his fatal injury.

Paavo Airola, author of “How to Get Well” and led the juice fasting and natural health movement in the 70’s and 80’s, died of a stroke at the age of 64.

Tina Leigh, health coach and author of The Balanced Raw cookbook, died at 38 after surgery to remove breast implants she’d gotten at age 21. Of course, this wasn’t because of her diet, but came as a shock to her fans.

James Fixx, who started the jogging craze in the late 70’s, diet at 52 from a heart attack — while jogging.

Roy Waldorf who was a longevity expert and wrote the book “The 120-Year Diet” died in 2004 at age 79. Not that bad, but nowhere close to the target age he projected.

Nathan Pritikin, one of the most prolific authors on the low fat diet, committed suicide as his body was overtaken by leukemia at age 69. To his credit, his leukemia was diagnosed before his heart disease, which he cured through diet changes. We can reasonably say that he lived longer because of his diet.

Ross Horne, his student, claimed that Mr. Pritikin would have lived longer if he had embraced the fruitarian diet that Ross promoted. He himself died of cancer, although well into his 80’s.

T.C. Fry, leader of the Natural Hygiene and fruitarian movement, died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 70.

Robert E. Kwalski, who wrote the famous book “The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure,” died at the age of 65 of a pulmonary aneurysm.

George Oshawa, who literally invented the macrobiotic diet (which actually means “the way of long life”) passed of lung cancer at the age of 73.

Adele Davis, who pioneered the concept of healthy eating, which unfortunately involved drinking a lot of milk, died at the age of 70 of cancer.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that ALL diet gurus die young. That’s not true, but many of them did.

Good Examples of Health Experts Who Lived Longer Than Average:

Paul Bragg died at 81. Although it was widely claimed by his family that he died from a surfing accident, apparently cause of death was a heart attack.

Norman Walker, juicing and raw food guru, died at 99 (and not at 118 years old as was previously claimed).

Jack Lalanne, who was more a fitness than a diet guru, died at the age of 96 from pneumonia.

Does This Mean Anything?

The fact many health gurus don’t live significantly longer than the average life expectancy, and in many cases live shorter lives, doesn’t in itself mean anything revolutionary.

People are fallible. Health gurus can be mistaken. More importantly… health gurus are human just like you and me!

And as I’ve discovered the hard way: not every health problem can be prevented through a healthy diet and lifestyle! 

Some health gurus practiced what they preached most of the time, some did part of the time, and others didn’t practice their teachings at all.

In some cases these inconsistencies didn’t prevent them from living a long life. For instance, Paul Bragg who used to enjoy an occasional burger at his favorite Honolulu restaurant.

Others, like T.C. Fry, struggled to apply their strict teachings in their own lives, yet lived longer than what their doctors had predicted (T.C. Fry was desperately sick and ready to die in his forties based on his doctor’s opinion).

Some gurus tried to give immortality a shot, like Roy Waldorf, and practiced calorie restriction, only to live slightly longer than the average male life expectancy.

Some diet gurus pretended to have the solution to weight loss, but were themselves overweight when they died (let’s not name names here).

Maybe it’s too much pressure to be a high-profile health guru. People expect you to be perfect all the time. Maybe some health gurus would have changed their minds about a few things they got wrong, but to maintain their image they refused to admit to others and themselves that their program did not work and that they needed to try something else.

Maybe the type of person who writes diet books — mostly men — tend to be a certain overachiever type, bringing to their lives a certain stress that would not have occurred otherwise.

Or it could be that many diet gurus start with poor health in the first place, and then get motivated to find a solution and write a book about it.

The fact that some diet gurus die young should not lead us to the conclusion that all diet advice is bad.

Although some of the alternative health advice is questionable, a lot of it is common sense based on science. And we would be fools to ignore it, even though it may not save us from every illness.

Some good advice includes:

  • Eating a plant-based diet, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoiding refined fats, oils, and carbohydrates.
  • Eating whole foods as they come from Nature
  • Exercising on a regular basis
  • Practicing some form of stress-management technique (like meditation)
  • Avoiding foods that you’re personally sensitive to

Other Things Are Not Black and White.

For example, there’s a debate as to whether a completely vegan diet is better than one that contains a small percentage of animal products.

Some people also feel best on an all-raw diet, although there’s not definite science to say that it’s absolutely the best diet for everybody.

Ultimately, it’s up to YOU to become your own diet guru.

It’s important not to fall into cynicism, and start to believe that nobody is right and that all diet advice is bad. Of course, no one is absolutely right but it’s logical to believe that certain people may be closer to the truth than others.

If a diet guru dies of an illness, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their advice is wrong. It could mean that they didn’t practice it, or that it wasn’t enough to prevent their illness.

On the other hand, if a diet guru looks fit and healthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually healthy on the inside! Or that they’ll live a long life. Ultimately, only large-scale studies on populations, backed by solid scientific data, can give us a clue as to what is actually going on.

Leave your comments below. 

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.