The death of a female bodybuilder in Australia has raised questions about how much protein in a diet is too much.
Meegan Hefford, 25, mother of two, died in June due to complications from a high protein diet along with urea cycle disorder, a rare genetic condition.
Hefford’s death certificate lists “intake of bodybuilding supplements” as one of the causes, reports USA Today.
Days before her death, Hefford reported feeling “weird”, and had been fatigued, according to her mother.
She was later discovered unconscious in her apartment and rushed to the hospital. Even then, it took two more days for doctors to discover that she had urea cycle disorder.
In a functioning urea cycle, excess ammonia in the body is converted to urea and then excreted from the body through urine.
Urea cycle disorder affects only about 1 in 8,000 individuals. It results in the body’s inability to clear ammonia from the blood stream.
Once this buildup of ammonia (referred to as hyperammonemia) reaches the brain, it can cause confusion, dizziness, and slurred speech — before leading to coma and, potentially, death.
According to the National Urea Cycle Disorders Foundation, the condition can occur in both children and adults. Babies are often quickly diagnosed because they may fall ill within the first 48 hours of birth.
However, in children and adults, symptoms may remain undiagnosed if not recognized early on.
High protein diet risks
The relationship between urea cycle disorder and protein certainly played a role in the death of Meegan Hefford.
When the body metabolizes protein, toxic byproducts such as ammonia are formed. Excess consumption of protein, combined with Hefford’s rare condition, made for a deadly combination.
There are others at greater risk of health complications if they are eating a high protein diet.
In an editorial this week, Kristin Kirkpatrick MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who is wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, explained that some individuals really do need less protein in their diets.
Individuals with chronic kidney disease, certain liver conditions, and phenylketonuria need to be careful with their protein intake.
On the other hand, athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women, individuals recovering from surgery, and older adults should all ensure they are taking in a more-than-average amount.
What is enough protein?
But what does that even mean — an average amount of protein?
The problem with current protein guidelines is that unlike other macronutritients (fat and carbohydrate), protein doesn’t really have an upper limit for how much a person should consume in a day.
Kirkpatrick does give a simple calculation to get you in the ballpark.
Take your weight in kilograms multiplied by 0.8 (1 kilogram is equal to about 2.2 pounds). So, a 200-pound man should eat at least 75 grams of protein per day.
“For the healthy individual, there may not be a need to double or triple daily protein intake,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline. “Protein can play a positive role in weight loss, but it’s important not to ignore other macronutrients that contribute to good health and weight, like healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.”
She noted that a one-day protein binge probably isn’t harmful, but a continual high-protein diet can put extra pressure on the kidneys and potentially increase the risk of some kinds of cancer.
Particularly in the fitness community, protein seems to have a reputation as a healthier macronutrient than carbohydrate and fat.
Its role in preserving and building muscle mass is well-known.
Still, there are healthier ways to consume protein than just chugging shakes or eating steaks.
The best places to get protein
Kirkpatrick specifies that the type of protein you eat really matters.
Protein comes from a variety of sources, including fish and plants. She cites a 2017 study that concluded plant-based protein sources helped in preventing type 2 diabetes, while red meat sources actually increased that risk.
Quinoa, beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts are all great sources for plant-based proteins.
It’s also important to be aware of how processed the protein is that you are consuming.
Kirkpatrick recommends you consume proteins closer to their natural forms rather than in bars, shakes, or veggie burgers.
The more processed your protein (or any food really), the more likely it is to contain hidden sugars and unwanted ingredients.
The bottom line is that when it comes to protein, more is not necessarily better.
Your lifestyle, health, and activity levels should always be taken into consideration when considering altering your diet.
“In the world of food, you can have too much of any good thing. Protein included,” wrote Kirkpatrick.