The fatal desire to be healthy

SOMEONE was missing at the University of Ulster’s winter graduation last November.

Luke McGuire’s name was listed among those receiving a Master of Science in Applied Psychology, with distinction — the latest academic achievement for the bright 26-year-old from the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh. But after his name in the graduation programme came the following: (posthumously). No scroll, no future for the popular student with a gift for music and, as yet, no absolute clarity as to how a seemingly fit and healthy young man came to collapse and die in the garden of his parents’ home, nor the strange link between him and a nutrition enterprise in California.

Earlier this month the Dublin City Coroner’s Court heard evidence about Luke’s death on Jun 2, 2011. According to reports, he died after months of sticking to an ‘alkaline diet’ and taking salt supplements he bought on the internet. The website in question was, for a company of the same name operated by the husband and wife team of Dr Robert O Young and Shelley Redford Young.

Luke’s father Brian McGuire told the court his son took health and fitness very seriously, that he never drank or took drugs and that he had been following a strict health regime. That regime, when viewed from afar, seems downright ascetic when compared to the habits of other people his age.

“He used to meditate and do yoga on a daily basis,” said Brian.

“He had friends, but he wasn’t into going to parties. He ate raw food, vegetables and fruit and baked potatoes.

“He ate plenty and his diet was good. He was into running, swimming and cycling. He completed a triathlon about a year ago. He was a remarkably healthy guy.”

So what happened? The court heard that in the months before his death he was following a “very low protein” vegetarian diet which required him to eat raw vegetables and fruit as well as drinking a lot of purified water. The court heard the diet was developed by Robert O Young.

Brian said Luke had been talking about “feeling weird” for two months prior to his death. Luke, his father and his brother were due to cycle from Ranelagh to Bull Island, some 13km.

However, Luke said he didn’t “feel right”. Brian told the court: “The next morning he said to me that he was taking these salts and that he thought they were making him feel ill in some way and that he felt thirsty.”

The products — pHour Salts and PuripHy — come from the pH Miracle website and cost $30 (€23) and $50. It seems Luke stopped taking the salts on the morning of his death, but continued to drink a lot of water throughout the day. Later he came into the kitchen when the family were having dinner and seemed fine, before then going into the back garden where his water filter was being kept because it was leaking. Twenty minutes later, his mother Marie Rooney found him lying on the ground. Despite attempts by his father and a family friend to resuscitate him Luke was turning blue, lying face down.

“His hands were by his side,” Brian said in court. “I turned him over and we began CPR.”

It was to no avail. Shortly afterwards Luke was pronounced dead in hospital.

Marie said Luke would have approached all the information he found on the diet with “enthusiasm” and she questioned Robert O Young’s qualifications.

On the pH Miracle website, Young’s numerous qualifications are listed, taking in the University of Utah, the Bradford Research Institute in Chula Vista, California, and the Capital University in Washington, DC. It also states: “In 1997, Dr Young received a PhD from Clayton College of Natural Health. His professor, James E Harvey from San Diego State University, reviewed and accepted his dissertation as completing all the requirements for a doctorate of philosophy degree in nutrition.”

However, the Clayton College has since closed and was unaccredited. In Britain another Clayton alumni, Dr Gillian McKeith, had to drop the “doctor” title after a successful complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority on the basis that the qualification was gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited American college.

Luke was a former student at Scoil Bhride gaelscoil, the nearby High School, and then Dublin Business School. He had been living at home in the months before he died, breaking from his studies in Derry, and had nearly finished a thesis on the Buddhist concept of self-forgiveness. Now, he is gone, with nobody sure why, only that there might be a link to a diet found online.

Pathologist Dr Ciarán Ó Riain said in court there had been swelling in Luke’s brain, something he attributed to hyponatraemia — an electrolyte disturbance caused by lower than normal sodium levels in the blood. Dr O’Riain said this may be related to water intoxication, but also said it was possible that the salt supplements had been a contributing factor. The coroner, Dr Brian Farrell, said Luke may have been suffering from a chronic low sodium situation that “tipped over” on the day of his death. He adjourned the case to Nov 8.

Luke had been eating fruit and vegetables, such as chickpeas and baked potatoes, along with platefuls of oranges and filtered water.

The website includes a section on planned retreats, including to Goa, India, and, when its offices in California were contacted by the Irish Examiner last week, we were told Dr Young was in India. The pH Miracle Institute press spokeswoman, Deborah Tumlinson, says she is just one of Young’s success stories, crediting his methods with helping her to overcome breast cancer. She has a problem with much of what she has heard from the coroner’s court.

“[Luke] was not an active patient of Dr Young’s and following the programmes on his own,” she says. That the court heard he was eating baked potatoes is proof that he was not fully adhering to the eating programme, she says, as potatoes are not part of the eating plan. Stressing that Young is not a medical doctor, Deborah says he is surrounded by trained medical professionals. “All he does is just change your eating [patterns], from standard to raw and an alkanised diet.”

Deborah says “our attorney is still reviewing our position on this case for submission to the coroner”, adding that some of what the court heard was “inaccurate” — “nowhere in the diet does it say you can eat potatoes”. Instead it is soups, salads, water, shakes; food that should be healthy. So why did Luke die?

PICK up any Sunday newspaper lifestyle magazine and chances are there will be a feature about a new diet which, if followed correctly, will shed all that weight you don’t want and knock about 10 years off your frame. At the same time, Ireland is in the grip of a growing obesity crisis. Children and their parents have poorer eating habits than previous generations, lifestyles are more sedentary, adults are drinking more alcohol at home and the result is a health system under increasing pressure. Aspiring athletes read stories about the lengths to which their heroes, be they rugby players, footballers or hurlers, adhere to a monkish regime of diet and exercise. In the midst of this, who wouldn’t want to attain optimum health and fitness?

Phil Jakeman, professor of exercise science at the University of Limerick, has seen a good few elite athletes pass through his door, including Munster rugby players. He does not want to comment too specifically on Luke’s case — “there are a lot of imponderables” — but is happy to discuss many of the wider issues of diet and fitness. On the topic of hydration, he points to an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), published in July of this year, entitled ‘The truth about sports drinks’.

Its second paragraph is eye-opening. “An investigation by the BMJ has found that companies have sponsored scientists, who have gone on to develop a whole area of science dedicated to hydration.”

It stresses that when it comes to hydration, there’s a very simple way of knowing when you to drink — thirst. “Academics were in the vanguard of the drive against thirst and the promotion of the dangers of dehydration,” according to the article, claiming “a genuine illness associated with sport has become a real concern — that of exercise-associated hyponatraemia.”

According to the article 16 people have died and 1,600 become critically ill during marathons as a result of drinking too many fluids.

Prof Jakeman says drinking too much fluid, including water, can lead to a “loading and unloading of the system”. There also needs to be a distinction made between what elite athletes take on board — which can be viewed as “abnormal” — and the quantities required by normal, healthy people, who are not burning off anything like the same amount of energy as professional athletes. This can be hard for high-performing players at secondary-school level, eager to emulate their idols. Stories abound of the use of supplements in senior cup rugby circles, for example.

Goals and the reality — it can be a potent mix. According to Harriet Parsons, services co-ordinator at the Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, young men are every bit as susceptible to dark thoughts about their body image as women.

“We have just started developing a third-level campaign and one of the slogans is ‘It’s as hard to be Ken as it is to be Barbie’,” she says.

The new third-level campaign aimed at students in colleges and universities is called ‘Size Doesn’t Matter — I Do’, with the idea being that anyone engaged in extreme dieting and/or excessive levels of exercise might stop and consider why they are undertaking such a punishing routine.

Richelle Flanagan, an ex-Ireland hockey player and head of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI), goes further. “The main thing from our point of view is we only give advice based on evidence — and there is no evidence for the alkaline diet.”

She says the fact Luke was an intelligent man makes his decision to follow a diet found online “scary”. He was an educated person and was maybe blinded by the science.

“He is not alone, that’s the problem. People do not recognise the power of nutrition.”

In addition to advising anyone starting a diet to check with their GP, Richelle believes the whole area of nutrition is not adequately regulated, a situation that extends to personal trainers and even gym instructors, operating in a world where the focus on celebrities and celebrity diets means people are sometimes willing to adopt extreme methods to gain results.

Health food stores are a feature of high streets, but even though they are regulated under the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), Richelle has a few issues with how the sector is monitored. Stringent guidelines exist for the sale of products to children, but for adults it’s something of a free-for-all. The new Health and Social Care Professionals Council will have oversight, but that still doesn’t go far enough in the view of the INDI. The way Richelle sees it, professional dieticians train for up to four years or longer, while staff in health food stores are often trained by the manufacturers of the products — casting doubt on their objectivity when advising customers.

“Anyone can go online and buy a nutrition qualification,” she says.

In her private practice, she remembers a client coming to her after he had been told by someone else to cut out carbs, leading to him ending up in A&E. Another client, training at something like elite level, had been given “totally inappropriate” advice on eating by his personal trainer. It was borderline “negligent”, she argues.

“A lot of people going into health food stores are vulnerable, they are looking for advice. A lot of people end up at our door.”

She says there are still problems with GAA and rugby players at school-level taking supplements, “breaking bones and tearing joints because they are building muscles on bodies that cannot take it... The most important nutrient for sport is carbohydrates, but a lot of people think it’s protein. I think a lot of people don’t understand where to go and nutrition can be dangerous if used inappropriately.

“In his case [Luke’s], his health would have been at risk going on a very low-calorie diet and hypo-hydrating.” There is bafflement when she mentions some of the products available online, as though the very idea of them is ludicrous. “People will pay for supplements but they won’t pay to go to their GP.”

Like many interviewed for this article, Richelle was careful to make only fleeting references to Luke’s case. Maybe there were “compounding factors”, she says, but the message is clear: Nutrition is a serious discipline and yet has a devastatingly simple model that is easy to follow — “the old food pyramid”.

The FSAI stresses that “you should not be buying food supplements from websites you know nothing about”. Salt supplements are not deemed to be medicinal, and so come under the remit of the FSAI, but the medicines regulator, the Irish Medicines Board, echoes the FSAI’s sentiments.

The IMB, in particular, “has concerns that consumers could be using the internet as a means to self diagnose, which can be extremely dangerous”.

Luke’s family politely declined the offer to be interviewed and are waiting for the next day they will attend the coroner’s court, when a verdict may be delivered. From this distance it is difficult to know what that verdict might be, but it will not bring back the bright 26-year-old who never managed to make it onto his bike that day last year.

Instead, he rests in Woodbrook Cemetery, Wexford, where he was laid to rest after a Humanist service at the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green. “He was a special person and a beautiful soul,” read the death notice. “Loved forever.”

More in this section

ieParenting Logo
Writers ieParenting

Our team of experts are on hand to offer advice and answer your questions here

Your digital cookbook

ieStyle Live 2021 Logo
ieStyle Live 2021 Logo

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Discover the great outdoors on Ireland's best walking trails

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up
Execution Time: 0.202 s