Killer Protein: Were Supplements to Blame for Woman’s Death?

Killer Protein: Were Supplements to Blame for Woman’s Death?

Meegan Hefford

tl; dr ... Short and to the Point
Who is this article aimed at?
Anyone worried or curious about the story of a young female bodybuilder who died, some papers say as a direct use of protein supplements.
I am busy - summarise it for me

This article goes beneath the eye catching headlines to look at if too much protein really was to blame for the death of this young woman, what other factors were at play and how they resultied in such a sad loss.

Tragic case

You may have read recently on various news outlets about the tragic death of keen bodybuilder, Meegan Hefford.

The 25 year old mother of two was consuming a high protein diet of shakes and egg whites preparing for an upcoming competition when she died. This has led to a rash of headlines appearing to claim her high protein intake was directly responsible for the young fitness fan’s death.

The protein industry is booming at the moment and supplements have never been more popular. If you don’t take extra protein as part of your workout regime, you probably know someone who does.

So stories like this are not only heart-breaking for those involved, but – framed in a way that blames supplement use – may also be very frightening for a lot of users.

What is the truth though? Are we simply dealing with sensationalist clickbait, designed to cash in on protein’s increasing popularity? Or is Meegan Hefford’s story a genuine red flag we should all be aware of going forward?

In a case as serious as this it pays to go beyond the headlines.

Rare genetic condition

Ms Hefford was found unconscious at her flat in Perth, Australia, on June 22nd 2017. Though she was rushed to hospital, she died hours later.

Her mother states that she had significantly stepped up her gym sessions at the start of the year and gone on a strict protein rich diet to prep for competition.

It took doctors two days to confirm that her cause of death was a genetic condition called urea cycle disorder (UDC).

This extremely rare defect means the body lacks 6 vital enzymes required to correctly break down and metabolize protein. This leads to a slow build-up of the toxic waste product of protein, ammonia.

When enough ammonia reaches the brain via the bloodstream it can result in a coma, brain damage, or death.

For the vast majority who don’t suffer with UCD however, the ammonia is naturally converted into a compound called urea and harmlessly passed as urine.

Signs of UDC

Urea cycle disorder often goes undetected, as it sadly did in this case, for a number of reasons. For one thing as we’ve already mentioned it’s incredibly rare, affecting one in literally tens of thousands.

Another reason is it can present in children and adults with either mild or severe symptoms.

Kids with acute UCD will be obviously ill, but mild or even moderate cases are often missed. As the build up of ammonia is slow sufferers may live perfectly healthily for years unaware there’s a problem.

However, Dr Alan Mew of the National Urea Cycle Disorders Foundation says even if the issue hasn’t been spotted there usually are indications.

“Typically, there’s some combination of nausea, vomiting, and inability to think clearly, particularly after a large protein meal,” he says. “It’s very rare for someone to feel completely healthy and suddenly fall unconscious.”

Ms. Hefford’s mother reported her daughter feeling ‘tired’ and ‘weird’ in the lead up to her death. Some other markers that your body isn’t processing protein correctly are:

  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Confusion & disorientation
  • Delirium
  • Stroke like symptoms

Reaction to the case

Understandably, the family of Meegan Hefford are calling for more warnings to be put on protein supplements.

We certainly wouldn’t disagree with the need for a change in how protein is marketed. There’s to much of an emphasis on what protein can do for you and not enough info on how to use it correctly so it can do that for you.

This has undoubtedly led to some users overdoing it with supplements, as we’ve touched on elsewhere on the site.

But the truth is, in most cases, unless you’re unlucky enough to have this rare condition, or have existed purely on protein for a long time, the worst too much will do is waste your time and money.

Any articles you read suggesting protein used responsibly is dangerous when there aren’t any other health factors involved is probably just in it for the page views.

Conclusion

We could just copy and paste the conclusion of nearly every protein article we write. Balance is the key. Sensible use, supplements as supplements not as a replacement for food.

Of course stay vigilant for the outside chance of any adverse reactions to protein, especially bodybuilders taking on a lot. But utilizing supplements properly, with a well judged exercise plan and balanced diet, only spells improvement for your health and physique.

tl; dr ... Short and to the Point
Who is this article aimed at?
Anyone worried or curious about the story of a young female bodybuilder who died, some papers say as a direct use of protein supplements.
I am busy - summarise it for me

This article goes beneath the eye catching headlines to look at if too much protein really was to blame for the death of this young woman, what other factors were at play and how they resultied in such a sad loss.

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