The fitness community is reeling this week after a female bodybuilder with an undiagnosed, pre-existing condition died from consuming too much protein.
Meegan Hefford’s family is blaming her recent death on her excessive protein intake — though it turns out she also had a rare condition called urea cycle disorder, which kept her body from breaking down protein properly.
The 25-year-old mother of two had been preparing for a bodybuilding competition when she was found unconscious in her Western Australian home. By the time doctors discovered her condition, it was too late.
Megan had reportedly complained about feeling tired and “weird” earlier in the month. Her mother, Michelle White, said she’d warned her to take it easy on her workouts.
Her mother also said she found “half a dozen containers” of protein supplements in her daughter’s kitchen, along with a diet plan that was full of lean meat and egg whites. Doctors believe that the excessive intake of protein combined with her disorder led to her death.
But what is urea cycle disorder, and how can eating too much protein be fatal?
When a person eats protein, the body breaks it down into its building blocks, called amino acids. After using what it needs, the body converts any leftover amino acids into nitrogen, which is removed from the body in a person’s urine through a process called the urea cycle, according to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
A person with urea cycle disorder can’t convert nitrogen into urea. Instead, the nitrogen builds up in the blood stream in the form of ammonia, a highly toxic substance, which can lead to irreversible brain damage, coma and death.
According to the National Urea Cycle Disorders Foundation, this condition can vary from mild to severe, with milder conditions often going undiagnosed for years.
“These people may have enough urea cycle function to get by on a day to day basis, until they hit some kind of perfect storm of events,” says Dr. Nicholas Ah Mew, director of the inherited metabolic disorders program at Children’s National Health System’s Rare Disease Institute, who spoke to Health.com.
“Maybe it’s a combination of illness or injury along with a large boost in protein intake, and it overcomes their ability to get rid of the ammonia in their system,” he adds.
However, Hefford’s case was unusual, as most people with undiagnosed urea cycle disorders typically exhibit some moderately severe symptoms. “Typically, there’s some combination of nausea, vomiting and inability to think clearly, particularly after a large protein meal,” says Mew. “It’s very rare for someone to feel completely healthy and suddenly fall unconscious.”
While Hefford’s case is rare, it’s nonetheless raising concerns over the detrimental effects of protein supplements, which are largely unregulated in both Australia and Canada.
For people looking to increase their protein intake in order to build muscle mass, experts agree that they should consult with a doctor or sports nutritionist to find out the healthiest ways to get protein.
Of course, the best way to get any of your vitamins, minerals and macros is through real, whole foods.
However, the occasional post-workout protein shake or bar shouldn’t be cause for concern for most people
“It’s important for the bodybuilding community to know that anyone who has repeated nausea, vomiting or headache after eating lots of protein should get their ammonia levels checked,” Mew says. “But if you feel fine, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have an undiagnosed disorder like this.”
If you’re aiming to up your protein intake,do your research first to understand protein powders, listen to your body, and enjoy your protein supplements in moderation.