An Australian woman who appeared to be in great shape suddenly died at age 25—and doctors say protein supplements contributed to her death. Meegan Hefford, a bodybuilder, had been complaining since early June about feeling "weird" and lethargic. On June 19, she was found unconscious in her apartment; three days later, she was dead, PerthNow reports. Doctors determined she had urea cycle disorder, a genetic disorder caused by a mutation that ultimately makes a person unable to process protein intake. Instead of the normal processing that happens when protein is metabolized, in a person with urea cycle disorder, ammonia builds up in the bloodstream and can reach the brain if left untreated, causing brain damage, coma, or death. As part of her training for an upcoming competition, Hefford, unaware she had the disorder, had ramped up her protein intake.
The mom of two had been going to the gym, sometimes twice a day, and eating protein-rich foods. But she was also drinking protein shakes and taking supplements, and her death certificate lists both urea cycle disorder and "intake of bodybuilding supplements" as causes of death. Now her family is calling for protein supplements to be more carefully restricted, and for warnings to be issued about high-protein diets. A few experts are already weighing in, with a doctor warning it's better to eat a balanced diet than to use supplements, and a dietitian noting that people generally don't need to be taking supplements to get enough protein, including very active people. Even the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness-Western Australia director agrees, saying protein supplements should carry warnings that excess protein can be dangerous, the West Australian reports. (Protein diets may be risky for the middle-aged.)