Did a Bodybuilder Actually Overdose on Protein Powder?
Supplements, in general, are often viewed with a degree of skepticism by both those in and outside of the fitness community. That’s nothing new. Typically, however, protein powders are seen as being pretty benign. After all, most of them are really just powdered milk, right?
Still, every once in a while critics emerge, claiming that even the saintly protein powder is unnecessary or potentially dangerous. Depending on these situation, concerns are usually raised regarding protein overdose, contamination or dangerous additives. Within the past few months, these accusations have recently experienced a pretty powerful resurgence when headlines began to make claims like this one found on the Australian news website Perth Now: “Mandurah mum’s use of protein shakes being blamed for contributing to her death.”
But, is that really what happened? Was protein powder actually to blame here? Is protein powder safe? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Happened To Meegan Hefford?
On June 22, 2017, a 22 year old bodybuilder and mother of two named Meegan Hefford suddenly died. Three days before her sad death, Meegan had been found unconscious in her apartment and doctors soon realized that she was rapidly losing brain activity. Like many of her co-competitors and fellow athletes, Hefford regularly took protein powders and other supplements – which her family had reportedly expressed concerns about in the past.
Eventually, Meegan’s doctors realized the problem: a rare and previously undiagnosed genetic condition called Urea Cycle Disorder. Unfortunately, the diagnose came too late. Despite this significant medical finding, however, Hefford’s death certificate lists “intake of bodybuilding supplements” as one of the causes of death.
Urea Cycle Disorder
But what about Urea Cycle Disorder? What is it and what role does it play in this discussion?
As mentioned, Urea Cycle Disorder is a very rare and potentially serious genetic condition in which the patient does not produce enough of a particular enzyme used in the urea cycle. Normally, this enzyme would break down nitrogen, remove it from the blood and convert it into urea to be removed from the body via urine.
If this enzyme is lacking, however, the nitrogen builds up in the blood in the form of ammonia. A highly toxic chemical, ammonia can eventually pass into the brain and cause major brain damage or even death.
The Protein Connection
So what does protein powder have to do with Meegan’s death?
All proteins that enter your body – whether they came from a chicken breast or a protein shake – are broken down into a number of byproducts or metabolites. One of the most common metabolites produced by the breakdown of proteins is nitrogen.
And, again, large amounts of nitrogen in your blood can become ammonia. Your kidneys, being the expert zealous filters that they are will work hard to get that ammonia safely out of your system. If ammonia concentrations get too high, though, you’re kidneys simply can’t keep up.
Protein and Kidney Health
Based on this, some people have raised the logical concern that excess protein intake could stress the kidneys beyond their ability. But is this true? Can too much protein actually damage your kidneys?
No, it doesn’t seem like it.
Numerous large-scale, long-duration studies have shown no connection between protein intake and kidney health. The enormous 1600-participant Nurses’ Health Study, for example, found no change in kidney function when protein intake increased. Granted, larger studies like this tend to lack certain individual details. Additionally, a smaller study has actually discovered a small change in kidney function. It’s very important, however, to point out that this study basically doubled protein intake overnight with no acclimation period.
These studies, though, were all conducted in individuals with otherwise healthy kidneys. In the Nurses’ Health Study cited earlier, individuals who already had kidney disease experienced an increased in kidney function – suggesting that their kidneys were working harder than they otherwise would be. For this reason, protein-restricted diets have long been used in the treatment of kidney disease.
Are Protein Powders To Blame?
So, after considering all of that information, can it be said that protein powders contributed to the death of Meegan Hefford? Not any more than any other source of protein.
Although all of that protein in Meegan’s diet was turned into the ammonia that sadly poisoned her, the protein that came in powder form was in no way especially toxic. And, if Meegan had not been suffering from an undiagnosed condition, she likely would have had no problems.
Managing Your Protein Intake
It is true, though, that protein does stress your kidneys and cause a gradual increase in ammonia levels. How, then, can you safely manage your protein intake so as not to experience any issues?
First, increase your protein intake levels slowly. Although there is not a ton of science on the subject, the one study (mentioned above) that did find an increase in kidney activity in healthy individuals had to resort to a massive, dramatic spike in protein intake.
Second, know your goals and plan your protein intake accordingly. For most athletes, a general goal is to get 0.68-1g of protein for every pound of bodyweight. The lowest recommendation is 0.36g of protein per pound of bodyweight, however.
Despite what the press says, then, protein powder was not responsible for the death of young Meegan Hefford. Instead, Meegan was the unfortunate victim of an undiagnosed genetic condition. For healthy individuals, well-used protein powders can be a powerful tool toward recovering properly from your workouts and ultimately reaching your fitness goals.
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