We commonly hear stories of people whose health defies the odds: the chain-smoking grannies who live to 100, the skinny dudes who pack away unreasonable amounts of calories without gaining an ounce. But often it’s the reverse that prevails; the physically virtuous who drop dead way before their time. And it’s never more surprising than when such a fate befalls the very people have become famous for espousing good health.
With a life expectancy in the United States for males at 76.3 years and 81.1 years for females (according to the CDC), it’s confounding to discover so many diet gurus who have succumbed years ahead of the national average. And this isn’t to suggest that their practices and philosophies contributed to their deaths in any way — who’s to say where nature tramples nurture, so to speak – but the irony is hard to deny. We don’t suggest throwing in the towel on healthy eating based on the unfortunate deaths of the diet gurus listed here, but it does provide some food for thought.
1. James Fixx
The author of the 1977 runaway bestseller, “The Complete Book of Running,” Fixx is often credited with starting the American running craze. Fixx ran 10 miles a day in addition to other vigorous exercise, and was described as being in fine physical condition by friends — yet he had a fatal heart attack at the age of 52 while jogging near his home in Vermont. Although he showed no symptoms, autopsy results revealed that his left circumflex coronary artery was almost totally blocked. About 80 percent of the blood flow in his right coronary artery was blocked and half of the left anterior descending was blocked in places. Although he had a family history of heart disease, his problems had gone undiagnosed by a physician.
2. Michel Montignac
The famous French doctor originally developed the Montignac diet to help himself lose weight. The diet went on to become the backbone of his best-selling books and a chain of restaurants and stores promoting his nutritional regimen. His research focused on the glycemic index and the distinction between good and bad carbohydrates. (For example, whole grains are good; refined flour is bad.) His 1987 book, “Eat Yourself Slim,” sold 17 million copies in several countries, and his work and theories were the inspiration behind the South Beach Diet. Montignac died of prostate cancer at the age of 66.
3. Nathan Pritikin
Perhaps the granddaddy of all diet gurus, few names are as associated with the health revolution as Nathan Pritikin. The inventor with a passion for nutrition and fitness was one of the first to promote the connection between diet and heart disease, which in the 1970s was a surprisingly novel idea. His bestselling books, which promoted a low-fat diet, his media appearances and namesake longevity centers have been responsible for guiding many followers into good health. And although his diet and exercise regimens brought him into excellent cardiovascular health, they were not enough to combat the leukemia that ravaged his body; Pritikin committed suicide in his hospital bed at the age of 69.
4. Paavo Airola
The European born and based Airola was a nutritionist and naturopathic doctor with a background in biochemistry and natural healing. Airola promoted natural healing through a diet of nutritious, whole foods and holistic medicine. He lectured extensively across the globe and spent time as a visiting lecturer at prestigious universities including Stanford University Medical School. Airola served as president of the International Academy of Biological Medicine, and authored 14 books, two of which became international bestsellers. The American Academy of Public Affairs went as far as to issue Airola the Award of Merit for his book on arthritis. This brilliant man was felled by a stroke at the age of 64.
5. Robert Atkins
Creator of one of the world’s most famous diets, the Atkins Nutritional Approach, aka the Atkins Diet, Robert Atkins basically gave the okay for bacon lovers to pig out on all things protein, condemning carbohydrates to the hall of dietary shame. Dieters swore by the program and vegetarians shuddered. Meanwhile, Atkins himself was revealed after his death to have had a “history of serious heart problems including myocardial infarction (a heart attack), congestive heart failure and hypertension,” which has been suggested by some to lead to his death, caused by a fall on the ice. He died at the age of 72.
6. Robert E. Kowalski
The author of The New York Times best-selling book (which was on the list for a remarkable 115 weeks) “The NEW 8-Week Cholesterol Cure” as well as “The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure Cookbook,” “Cholesterol & Children,” “8 Steps to a Healthy Heart,” “The Type II Diabetes Diet Book” and “The Blood Pressure Cure: 8 Weeks to Lower Blood Pressure Without Prescription Drugs” died at the age of 65 from a pulmonary embolism.
7. Adelle Davis
Born in 1904, Adelle Davis, was one of the country’s best-known early nutritionists and contended that almost any disease could be prevented by proper diet. The visionary author penned four best-selling books: “Let’s Cook It Right,” “Let’s Have Healthy Children,” “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Eat Right To Keep Fit.” Although she received criticism for some of her more far-out ideas, her enthusiasm for health food led her to become an early advocate for the need to exercise, the dangers of vitamin deficiencies as well as the need to avoid hydrogenated fat, saturated fat and excess sugar consumption — all of which remain standard guidelines today.
Davis succumbed to cancer at the age of 70. While some consider her death premature based on the current national average, others say she lived a relatively long life for a woman born in 1904. She had maintained that cancer was a result of the inadequacies of the American diet, and upon discovering her illness, expressed hope that her diagnosis would not disappoint the many people who took her good advice to heart.