An Australian bodybuilder died earlier this summer after a rare genetic condition triggered a lethal reaction to the high-protein diet she’d adopted not long before her death.
Meegan was rushed to the hospital after she was found unconscious and it took doctors two days to discover she had urea cycle disorder, which can lead to a build-up of ammonia in a person’s bloodstream that ends up leading to brain damage, coma, and death if it’s left unchecked. Symptoms of the disorder can include episodes of disorientation, confusion, slurred speech, unusual and extreme combativeness or agitation, stroke-like symptoms, lethargy, and delirium, according to the National Urea Cycle Disorders Foundation. And unfortunately, the organization says, many people with the condition go undiagnosed. Meegan was pronounced brain dead the next day, and her death certificate lists “intake of bodybuilding supplements” as one her causes of death.
Meegan complained about feeling lethargic and weird before she died, her mom now says. “I said to her, ‘I think you’re doing too much at the gym, calm down, slow it down,’” Michelle says. (Need a break? Relax with these color therapy bath botanicals, from the Women’s Health Boutique).
Meegan, who was 25 and the mother of two children, had competed as a bodybuilder since 2014. Her diet included protein shakes and protein-rich foods like lean meat and egg whites, her mom says.
learly Meegan’s undiagnosed health condition played a role in her death, but Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life with Real Food, says high-protein diets can also be dangerous if someone has a preexisting medical condition like kidney disease, she says.
“For most healthy young adults, high protein diets are not fatal, although are usually not ideal for optimal health and energy either,” says certified dietitian-nutritionist Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., CEO of NY Nutrition Group. Your body can only use so much protein at a time, she explains, and it can’t store excess protein like it stores carbs and fat. As a result, your body has to go into overdrive to get rid of extra protein, and that can put a strain on your kidneys.
Most people don’t actually become sick from a high-protein diet, but they may not feel wonderful. “Since protein is not used for energy as efficiently as carbohydrates, a higher protein, lower carb diet may leave people feeling more weak, lethargic, and as a result even moody,” Moskovitz says.
Obviously everyone’s dietary and protein needs are different, but most people only need about of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, Warren says. That means if you weigh 150 pounds, you only need eight or so ounces of meat a day.
Bottom line: If you’re on a high-protein diet and plan to stay on it, it doesn’t hurt to check in with your doctor just to make sure you’re okay to do so.