Photo: Meegan Hefford Instagram
It's no secret that training for a bikini competition is intense—just ask Cassey Ho. But the story of a young Australian woman's death while training for a bodybuilding competition is understandably freaking out a lot of people. Meegan Hefford, a 25-year-old mother of two, was eating a high-protein diet that also included protein supplements when she suffered a buildup of fluid in her brain that eventually led to her death, according to Perth Now.
What Hefford didn't know before switching up her diet was that she had a urea cycle disorder, a rare condition that made it impossible for her body to properly process all the protein she was eating. The cause of death listed on her death certificate? "Intake of bodybuilding supplements."
Before you get freaked out, here's a little information about the rare condition that caused Hefford's death. "A urea cycle disorder is a genetic disorder where an enzyme involved in the breakdown of protein to urea (which gets passed into your urine) is missing or deficient," explains Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D., a bariatric physician and cofounder of bistroMD. That means that instead of your body processing protein in the normal way, there's no way for it to exit your body effectively. This leads to excess ammonia in the bloodstream, and in Hefford's case, a buildup of fluid in the brain. Dr. Cederquist says that this type of condition is fairly uncommon, and is often diagnosed in early infancy and childhood, especially when it's severe. Adults who have this deficient ability to process protein "can have issues with excessive ammonia buildup that leads to coma and even death if they are under metabolic stress," she explains. Examples of metabolic stress are a viral infection, childbirth, heavy exercise, or a very high protein intake—like in Hefford's case.
Again, there's not much reason to panic here, as Dr. Cederquist emphasizes that for the average woman who is working out and eating a high-protein diet, the risk of developing a buildup of ammonia in the blood is small. In order for it to happen, the "perfect storm" of factors, like a mild form of the genetic defect that causes urea cycle disorder, heavy exercise, and very high protein intake would *all* need to be present. And before things get dire, there would be symptoms like nausea, vomiting, fatigue, confusion, and slurred speech, she says. Needless to say, "a woman who is bodybuilding, eats a very high protein diet, and has odd symptoms needs to seek medical care," she says. (Related: How Much Protein Is Too Much?)
Looks like the chances of the average woman being affected by this specific condition are pretty low, but is it possible to overdo it on protein in other circumstances? Not so much, according to Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist who spoke to us previously about the possibility of ODing on protein powder. Unless you have a kidney issue, he explained, there aren't really any drawbacks to eating more protein than you truly need. Instead, issues more often arise from additives that are found in some protein supplements, like vitamins, creatine, caffeine, fat burners, and energy boosters, or the fact that people rely too heavily on protein powders and miss out on the nutrients that come from real food. (And if you're not sure how much protein you actually need, scope this handy guide to protein needs for women.)
In short, too much protein probably isn't going to cause problems for you. But if you notice any weird symptoms after starting a high-protein diet, it's best to play it safe and check in with your doctor.