The mother of an Australian bodybuilder is blaming her daughter’s sudden death on her use of protein supplements.
Meegan Hefford, 25, was eating a diet rich in protein — and protein shakes — to prepare for an upcoming bodybuilding competition when she collapsed on June 19. She was pronounced brain dead on June 22, just hours after doctors finally learned what caused her sudden collapse: urea cycle disorder.
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The rare disorder is an enzyme deficiency that prevents the body from breaking protein down properly, leading to a buildup of ammonia in the blood that can eventually lead to brain damage and death. It’s more common in men, and Hefford had no idea she suffered from the illness, according to her mom.
“I know there are people other than Meegan who have ended up in hospital because they’ve overloaded on supplements,” Michelle White told Perth Now of what she believes really caused her daughter’s death.
Are protein supplements safe?
The official cause of Hefford’s death is listed as “intake of bodybuilding supplements.”
However, her undiagnosed urea cycle disorder is likely the actual cause — and any type of extra protein she ate to prepare her body for competition could have caused the buildup of ammonia, not just the protein from powdered supplements.
It’s impossible to avoid protein — and you shouldn’t because it’s a basic building block of all cells in the body. You need it to help your body build and repair cells, including muscle mass. Most doctors and dietitians recommend that you get the bulk of your protein from nutrient-rich foods like chicken, red meat, beans and spinach, and add in protein powder to make up for any gaps you aren’t getting in your diet.
However, adding in protein powder supplements won’t automatically turn you into a muscle machine. “Protein powder doesn’t have any magical powers when it comes to weight loss or muscle building,” Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, told Fox News.
Some people may have trouble with certain protein supplements, like those containing whey, because of allergies.
The main problem with protein powders isn’t the protein, it’s that they don’t have to be rigorously tested like pharmaceutical drugs because they’re considered to be supplements by government agencies like the FDA. This lack of oversight means that companies could add ingredients that aren’t printed on the label, which could lead to dangerous reactions.
Some supplement manufacturers have even been sued for false advertising when tests showed their products contained less protein than claimed.
“I think the problem with the supplement industry is that it’s really designed to make money for the companies which sell the products and not to provide any significant health benefit for the vast majority of people taking them,” Australian Medical Association WA president Dr. Omar Khorshid told Perth Now.
“This case is obviously tragic and illustrates that you may not know you have a health issue that alters the way you metabolize,” he added.