An interesting story was brought to my attention earlier today.
News reports told the story of a mother of two from Australia who died while following a healthy lifestyle and exercise routine.
“Drinking too many protein shakes.”
This tragic incident has got lots of people asking questions regarding the general safety of whey protein supplements.
- … can whey protein really kill you?
- … how many shakes is too many shakes?
- … is it a particular brand that caused it, or all supplements?
Today I’m going to answer those questions for you.
If you haven’t read the article on what happened, here it is.
In it, claims are made that the young mum died as a result of drinking too many whey protein shakes and bodybuilding supplements, while following a strict exercise routine at her local gym.
Gym-goers around the world will be on edge reading that sentence.
So allow me to put myself into science mode to look at the details…
Too Many Protein Shakes?
Let’s get down to it…
Despite media sensationalism that we should ditch whey protein and eat real food only, or that we should avoid protein altogether because it is “too risky”, what we have here is a case of incredibly bad luck.
First, I’m a huge advocate of eating so-called “real food” to achieve your target macronutrients, but protein is protein whether it comes in the form of a shake or a meal.
It consists of the same amino acids which help the body to build muscle regardless how it arrives (chicken, steak, turkey, eggs, milk – in fact, whey is derived from milk), and it just so happens that grabbing a quick shake fits the lifestyle of certain individuals more than others.
That is fine.
I still recommend getting most of your dietary intake from food, but let’s not pretend that there’s voodoo at work here.
Second, if we don’t eat any protein, that would be catastrophic to our lifestyle, never mind our health and fitness goals.
The body literally needs it.
So enough with the scare tactics, media…
Buried deep in the article, we see that the lady was unknowingly suffering from Urea Cycle Disorder.
This is a rare condition where the body is unable to properly digest protein, leaving harmful waste product in the bloodstream.
The continuous build-up of that waste product is what ultimately did the damage for this poor lady.
If you have read my article answering questions on whether a high protein diet is bad for your kidneys (here), you’ll know that we have decades of research showing that protein is safe. (1)
However, in that piece of content I mentioned the one exception to the rule…
You guessed it: pre-existing kidney damage.
If a person has a condition which inhibits the body’s ability to utilize protein correctly, the last thing they should be told to do is follow a high protein diet.
It looks like that’s exactly what this lady was advised to do.
How Do We Stop This From Happening Again?
In order to prevent this from happening to others, we must first be clear on what we’re trying to stop.
Are we saying that too many whey protein shakes can kill you?
Despite the headlines, whey protein (just like protein from food) is perfectly safe.
The family of the Australian lady are campaigning to force supplement industry bosses to uphold greater regulations, and I can agree with this.
After all, the FDA are regularly banning pre-workouts for including untested ingredients which turn out to be potentially dangerous, so the industry could benefit from stricter guidelines.
But what occurred here is a slightly different story.
It has nothing to do with a dangerous ingredient. Protein is not dangerous to the vast majority of the world’s population.
Maybe supplement manufacturers need to include a message that a high protein diet is unsuitable for individuals who have pre-existing kidney issues.
Sure, the same would also need to be done on high protein food items like chicken, burgers, etc.
But if it saves a life? Get it done!
The family are also advising people to make sure they get themselves checked out before completely changing their diet and lifestyle which, again, I consider good advice.
Urea Cycle Disorder is a rare hereditary condition which affects roughly 1 in 8000 people.
Since this happened, the lady’s mother and daughter have since discovered they have the same genetic condition.
Safeguard yourself by checking with your GP before making any radical changes to your diet.
Unfortunately, this tragic story has been turned into more food fear-mongering by a hungry media who, having previously demonized carbohydrates and fats, have now turned their attention to protein.
Using science, however, we get to the bottom of the matter.
Stay safe out there.
- 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)