That Extra Scoop of Protein in Your Shake Might Actually Kill You

woman dies protein powder
meeganheff/Instagram

Take a walk through most health food stores, and you'll probably agree that protein supplements are pretty ubiquitous. Many people take them in hopes of bulking up muscle or losing weight. But a recent and sudden death of an Australian woman linking back to protein supplements has understandably prompted concerns over how dangerous dietary supplements might be.

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Mother-of-two and bodybuilder Meegan Hefford, 25, was stocking up on protein-rich foods as well as protein shakes in order to get in shape for an upcoming bodybuilding competition. On top of that, she was eating on a strict diet and working out more intensely, sometimes twice a day.

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But she had been feeling lethargic and "weird," according to her mother, who told her to cut down on the gym time.

meegan hefford
meeganheff/Instagram

What she she didn't know was that she also had a rare genetic disorder called urea cycle disorder.

Kathleen Laquale, a professor in the Department of Movement Arts, Health Promotion, and Leisure Studies at Bridgewater University, explained to CafeMom that people with this disorder have a deficiency of an enzyme that helps you break down proteins. Basically, Hefford's kidneys couldn't handle all the protein.  

On June 19, she was found unconscious in her home and taken to the hospital, where it took doctors two days to diagnose her preexisting condition. Her urea cycle disorder had caused ammonia to build up in her blood, as well as fluid in her brain.

protein powders
Wikimedia Commons/Sandstein

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Two days later, she died.

While the rest of her organs were donated, her liver was too damaged. But her family is calling for stricter regulations and warnings on dietary supplements and high-protein diets. 

"I know there are people other than Meegan who have ended up in the hospital because they've overloaded on supplements," her mother said, according to Perth Now. "The sale of these products needs to be more regulated."

meegan hefford
meeganheff/Instagram

As Laquale explains to CafeMom, large amounts of protein, mainly through supplements and not natural foods, can cause side effects in those with certain preexisting conditions such as type 1 diabetes or urea cycle disorder. The good news is that those who are healthy can most likely handle large amounts of protein (but don't confuse this with Laquale advocating for these kinds of supplements).

Those side effects range from hair loss, dehydration, and headaches.

Side effects don't show up right away; it takes some time of taking the supplements first.


meeganheff/Instagram

"It's in a natural balance, and we humans try to upset that balance by taking excess amounts," Laquale says. She adds, "Society has put protein on a pedestal."

Instead, she suggests eating more fruits and vegetables, which have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carbohydrates that your body needs to fuel itself.  

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