How a protein diet killed a young mum

Perth Now

A FIT and healthy Mandurah mother’s use of protein supplements has been blamed for contributing to her sudden death at the age of just 25.

Meegan Hefford was taking protein shakes and eating protein-rich foods, such as lean meat and egg whites, to get in shape for a bodybuilding competition.

Unknown to the mother-of-two, she had a rare genetic disorder that stopped her body from properly breaking down the protein.  

Urea cycle disorder, which affects one in 8000 people, caused a build-up of ammonia in her blood and accumulation of fluid in her brain.

Her family is calling for tighter restrictions on the dietary supplements industry and for warnings about high- protein diets.

Ms Hefford, who leaves behind a seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, was found unconscious in her Mandurah apartment on June 19.

She was rushed to Fiona Stanley Hospital, where doctors scrambled to work out why a young and very fit woman was rapidly losing brain activity.

It took two days for the medical team to discover she had urea cycle disorder. The following day, June 22, she was pronounced brain dead.

Her death certificate lists “intake of bodybuilding supplements” as one of the causes of death, as well as the previously undiagnosed disorder.

People with the disorder have enzyme deficiency, preventing protein from breaking down properly.

This leads to a build-up of ammonia in the bloodstream which poisons the brain, eventually leading to brain damage, coma and death.

Meegan’s mother, Michelle White, of Mandurah, said her daughter had ramped up her gym sessions and gone on a strict diet earlier this year in the lead-up to a bodybuilding competition in September.

Ms White said Meegan, who was studying paramedicine at Edith Cowan University while working part-time at Princess Margaret Hospital in telecommunications, would often go to the gym twice a day.

She was eating a protein-rich diet, which included taking supplements.

By early June, Meegan was complaining to her family about feeling lethargic and “weird”.

“I said to her, ‘I think you’re doing too much at the gym, calm down, slow it down’,” Ms White said.

Meegan, who competed in a bodybuilding competition in 2014, was found unconscious by a real estate agent conducting a property rental inspection.

“I couldn’t believe what the doctors were telling me, she was dying. I said, ‘You have to give her more time’, because she didn’t look sick, she looked beautiful,” Ms White said.

After the family, including her children who live in the State’s north with their father, said their goodbyes to Meegan, her organs were taken for donation.

“Meegan has saved four people’s lives because of her heart, her lungs and kidneys,” she said. “They couldn’t take her liver because it was shot.

“Losing Meegan, it’s so awful and I still can’t believe she’s gone but I have to focus on the positives that at least I had 25 years with her and she jammed so much into her life, it’s almost like she knew her time would be short.”

Ms White said she didn’t know her daughter was taking protein supplements until she found half a dozen containers in her kitchen, which she believes were bought online and in shops.

She also found a detailed diet plan.

Ms White said she hoped her daughter’s death would be a wake-up call for the supplements industry. She said she wanted tighter regulations to prevent more tragedies.

“I know there are people other than Meegan who have ended up in hospital because they’ve overloaded on supplements,” Ms White said.

“The sale of these products needs to to more regulated.”

Meegan’s death has prompted health experts to warn about the risks of taking supplements, regardless of whether people have pre-existing health conditions.

Australian Medical Association WA president Dr Omar Khorshid said people should stick to eating a balanced diet rather than trying to “trick your body” into building muscle mass.

“I think the problem with the supplement industry is that it’s really designed to make money for the companies which sell the products and not to provide any significant health benefit for the vast majority of people taking them,” Dr Khorshid said.

“This case is obviously tragic and illustrates that you may not know you have a health issue that alters the way you metabolise.”

Accredited practising dietitian and Sports Dietitian Australia president Simone Austin said people had misconceptions that high-protein diets were necessary.

Ms Austin, who is a consultant for AFL club Hawthorn, said more protein “did not equal more muscle”.

“Excess supplements can be more dangerous if someone already has health conditions, like renal impairment, but people won’t necessarily know they have that, so that’s why people need to be cautious and stick to what the guidelines say,” she said.

“Most of us only need about one gram per kilogram body weight, even if you’re reasonably active.

“Very active people who want to put on muscle mass might need 1.5g per kilogram body weight. It’s pretty easy to get that from food.

“We tend to let all sorts of people give nutrition advice. We should only let people qualified in the nutrition area give us specific advice.”

According to Nutrition Australia, some athletes, such as strength trained or endurance athletes, often needed more protein, “with requirements of 1.2g-1.6g per kilogram of body mass per day”.

“Such intakes can generally be achieved by the overall increased food intake required to fuel training,” Nutrition Australia’s website states.

“Protein supplements and shakes can be very expensive and are not usually necessary.”

3 thoughts on “How a protein diet killed a young mum

  1. Sh!t like this makes me irate. The woman had an undiagnosed genetic disorder, was (unlike most people who DID have a diagnosis) not on any medications or having her blood tested and ammonia levels measured, and it’s the PROTEIN SHAKES that killed her, sez Mum. “The sale of these products needs to to more regulated.”, sez Mum.
    Sorry for your daughter’s untimely demise, Mum, but the untreated rare genetic disorder is what caused her death, not the wholesome (for almost everyone else) PROTEIN SHAKES!
    Now, because you find it difficult to accept her death, or perhaps due to being unaware of her condition, you feel guilt that you did nothing to help her (you could not have known without specialized testing she had this disorder) you want to place the responsibility for her death on the supplements industry, and make all the rest of us lose a little more freedom.
    Well, F you, Mum. Cry, mourn, remember her life and get over it. You have 2 grandkids that need your support, and they don’t need you teaching them that blaming others for one’s misfortunes in life is acceptable.
    ‘Nuff said.

  2. What is it with people being such soft, emotional pansies who melt at the slightest thing life throws at them? It seems like everyone who loses a loved one now wants to shove their totalitarian crap down our throats to make them feel better about being a loser. This mindset has brought us MADD and various and sundry other authoritarians who want nothing less than to tell everyone else how to live.

    I totally agree with Darzak!

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