The protein supplement market is booming. Protein powder, shakes, bars, and gels offer gym-goers and health-conscious people a nutritious alternative to junk food, or even a complete meal substitute.
Some 1 in 5 men regularly replace meals with protein drinks or bars, according to a 2015 study presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention. And it’s not just men; a 2013 survey published in The FASEB Journal, reported on Shape, found that 50 percent of female recreational endurance athletes and 100 percent of female bodybuilders use protein supplements.
On balance, protein is super important for almost every function in the body. Everyone needs protein to help their body repair cells and make new ones. According to MedlinePlus, the daily recommended intake of protein (which is plentiful in eggs, quinoa, chicken, and fish) for healthy adults is 10 to 35 percent of your total calorie needs. For example, if a person on a 2,000 calorie diet ate 100 grams of protein per day, this would provide 20 percent of their total daily calories. (Here are signs you may not be eating enough protein.)
However, the recent death of bodybuilder Meegan Hefford from Australia highlights some potential dangers of consuming too much of the nutrient. According to Perth Now, Hefford increased her protein consumption (both from food and dietary supplements) leading up to a competition, and she was not aware that she had urea cycle disorder, a rare disorder that prevented her body from properly metabolizing protein. (Urea cycle disorder has no outward symptoms.) Hefford’s death certificate listed the condition as a cause of death, along with “intake of bodybuilding supplements.” Hefford’s mother revealed that she found “half a dozen containers” of protein supplements in Hefford’s kitchen, along with a detailed diet plan including protein-rich foods like lean meat and egg whites.
“Consuming too much protein powder can be dangerous for your health, particularly if there are underlying medical conditions,” says Vinh Nguyen, MD, family medicine physician at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “People who have disorders where protein cannot be properly metabolized can become very ill or die, as the incompletely processed protein metabolites can build up to toxic levels in the body. Studies show that excess protein consumption can lead to kidney disease, as well as kidney stones. Excessive protein intake can also cause dry mouth, constipation, and hair loss.”
When it comes to recommended daily amounts of protein, there are no hard and fast recommendations. “You must factor in a person’s dietary protein intake and wheather he or she has a medical condition that needs to be factored in,” explains Renato Roxas Jr., MD, Chief of Medicine at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital. “Some reputable sources suggest that 1.2 grams of whey protein supplementation per kilogram of body weight as a good guide. It is best for people to work with their doctor to determine the safe amounts for them. [In Hefford’s case], she unknowingly had a fairly rare congenital condition that hindered her ability to properly metabolize protein, leading to the accumulation of toxic byproducts.”