A mother is calling on the health industry to regulate sales of protein powder and supplements after her daughter died in 2017 due to a protein-heavy diet. Meegan Hefford, who was 25 years old, died as a result of a rare disorder that stopped her body from properly digesting the high amounts of protein her diet provided.
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Meegan Hefford was diagnosed with a urea cycle disorder, which is the name of a group of diseases that impair the body’s ability to remove waste products from the digestion of protein.
The urea cycle involves the body breaking down protein into amino acids, with surplus amino acids being broken down further into waste products. In urea disorders, the liver fails to produce enzymes essential to the urea cycle and ammonia collects in the blood from the build-up of waste products.
This accumulation of ammonia can cause brain damage and eventually, death.
Michelle White, Hefford’s mother, also discovered her granddaughter was living with the same condition.
Now, two years after her daughter’s death, White is urging the health industry to regulate protein shakes and for people to get themselves checked over for any health conditions or problems that may make their chosen diet plan dangerous for them.
Hefford was declared brain dead two days after being found collapsed in her bedroom, and doctors advised the family to turn off life support.
Problems began when Hefford developed post-natal depression after the arrival of her second child. Having been previously passionate about working out at the gym, antidepressants prescribed to ease her depressive symptoms led to weight gain.
Within a few months, her love of fitness turned into an obsession about her body image. Getting her body in peak condition for them started to take over and soon her diet became more and more restricted.”
Michelle White, Mother
High-protein foods offer an alternative to shakes
Azmina Govindji from the British Dietetic Association (BDA) spoke on the benefits of consuming protein in food over shakes and supplements.
“Users may choose to take them before, during and after training to enhance performance and improve recovery, add them to meals to boost their protein, or drink them between meals as a high-protein snack.
“But they could get the same benefits from introducing high-protein foods to their diet as snacks or adding them to their normal meals to enhance the protein content.
Although protein shakes are convenient, not all of them are suitable to be used as a meal replacement, because they don’t have all the vitamins and nutrients that a balanced meal would contain.”
The NHS website states that taking in “too much protein” could lead to an increased risk of developing osteoporosis and can make existing kidney problems worse in the long term.
According to the NHS, the Department of Health advises adults to “avoid consuming more than twice the recommended daily intake of protein (55.5g for men and 45g for women)”.
As a result of Hefford’s death, a national inquest into body-building supplements was carried out by Australia’s Ministry of Health.
Dr. David Cusack, of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries Food Authority, said the chemical NADB was found in products they investigated, and had a “very similar structural chemistry to methamphetamine.”
NADB has been added to the list of substances banned from workout supplements. This list also includes DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine) an amphetamine derivative, DMHA (2-aminoisoheptane), and DMBA (1,3-Dimethylbutylamine), which is known to cause high blood pressure, vomiting, brain hemorrage, and stroke.
Many people are unaware that fitness shakes and supplements can also contain small amounts of lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and pesticides, all posing clear risks to health. As such, experts recommend proper research is done into every ingredient in shakes and supplements before people consume them.
'Only certified nutritionists should offer advice on dieting'
Rick Miller, a clinical and sports dietitian from the BDA, gave advice to bodybuilders and those regularly going to the gym regarding how to increase protein intake through stepped diet changes that prioritize safety along with improving the diet.
“A simple change in foods (such as Greek yogurt in the morning with muesli and fruit, rather than plain breakfast cereal and milk) will help enhance the protein content of a meal.
“After you have taken this step, fill in the gaps with a reputable brand of protein supplement. Always read the label carefully, take the recommended serving size, and don’t be tempted to take far more than is necessary, as this is not supported by the current evidence.
“If you’re unsure, ask your GP to refer you to a registered dietitian for advice. Protein supplements are not recommended for children due to the lack of research into long-term effects.”
After finding a protein-heavy diet plan provided by a personal trainer, and protein supplements in her daughter’s kitchen, White said:
Only certified nutritionists should offer advice on dieting, and I urge people to get medical checks before drastically changing their food intake. It’s too late for Meegan, but I hope by sharing her story she can save another family from this pain.”
Michelle White, Mother