A protein-related tragedy in Australia has sparked huge fears over the safety of whey protein shakes.

Are Protein Shakes Bad For You?

Written by Russ Howe PTI, and most recently updated 1 day ago.

4 min read

The fitness world is currently in shock after media reports of a young Australian lady who passed away “after drinking too many protein shakes”.

You can read the story here.

This tragedy had led some people to declare that whey protein shakes are unsafe for human consumption, but I’m here to tell you to follow the science, not the media.

When I first read about this story I felt a mixture of sadness and anger. Sadness because this is a terrible situation and a young mother has lost her life, and anger because the media have chosen to skew the event into some kind of scaremongering tactic just to drive more clicks to their fucking websites.

You see, when we dive into the finer details of this story, we can see that the cause of death had nothing to do with “drinking too many protein shakes”, but rather that the lady was suffering from a very rare (and undiagnosed) kidney disease called urea cycle disorder.

This genetic condition affects about 1 in 80,000 people (roughly 1% of the population). The vast majority of cases are identified at birth, so the chances of somebody making it into adult life undiagnosed are incredibly rare (hence why we don’t see stories like this all the time).

Urea cycle disorder renders the body unable to properly process large amounts of protein in one go. While your kidneys are getting to work on the protein you just ate, the body will produce ammonia, and the urea cycle is tasked with sweeping away this by-product until the kidneys have completed their job. However, if somebody has UCD their body is unable to do this, and it can result in ammonia building up to toxic levels. That’s what happened here.



are protein shakes bad for you

I understand that news outlets just want to drive clicks, and they certainly achieved their objective.

Heck, my inbox caught fire with messages from concerned fitness enthusiasts who skimmed the headline and feared the worst.

However, this type of lazy reporting really grinds my gears.

The first thing it does is spread fear among the general public regarding the safety of proven supplements like whey protein, and that’s just unnecessary. We have decades of academic research showing that whey protein (and just protein in general) is perfectly safe. (1, 2, 3)

But perhaps even worse is that reporting like this might make people quit their fitness journey altogether.

Let’s face it, it’s a big challenge to pull yourself off the couch and begin swapping an unhealthy lifestyle for a healthy one, isn’t it? It requires a whole lot of drive, and it can feel complicated as fuck at first. So when the media starts saying things like this, it can have a negative impact on people in the early stages of their journey, causing them to get overwhelmed and throw in the towel, saying “WTF? Even protein is bad for you now?”

DO BETTER, MEDIA.

Anyway, the family of the young lady are now campaigning for whey protein manufacturers to include warnings on the label about the damage which high protein foods can cause if somebody has pre-existing kidney issues. I think that this is a fantastic idea, and it might potentially save lives. This warning should also be added to the nutritional labels of all high protein foods (chicken, burgers, eggs, etc), because your body processes them the same way.

And finally, if you feel like you might have an undiagnosed kidney issue, including urea cycle disorder, please go see your GP and find out if you’re in the 1%. It’s always better to be safe.

References:

  1. Antonio, J., et al. A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in Resistance-Trained Males. J Nutr Metab (2016).
  2. Poortmans, J.R., et al. Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes?. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab (2000).
  3. Knight, E.L., et al. The impact of protein intake on renal function decline in women with normal renal function or mild renal insufficiency. Ann Intern Med (2003).

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I’m Russ. I’ve been a personal trainer since 2002, and I own russhowepti.com.

My job is to simplify fitness for my readers.

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