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Drinking Protein Shakes Can Harm Your Health, Experts Warn

Health experts warn protein supplements can do more harm than good, and are calling on tighter regulation in the trade.

For gym-goers and athletes, adding a scoop of protein powder to a morning smoothie may seem like a quick way to boost muscle.

However, in extreme cases, experts are warning of the hidden dangers of protein supplements, and are echoing desperate calls from a heartbroken West Australian mother, who claims her daughter's use of protein supplements contributed to her sudden death.

Photo: Meegan Heff Via Instagram

In June 2017, mother-of-two Meegan Hefford was found unconscious in her Mandurah apartment. Her mother, Michelle White, was on her way to see her grandchildren when she received the call.

Hefford was rushed to hospital, and died two days later.

In a recent interview with The Mirror, White said Meegan became a "fitness fanatic" after the birth of her own daughter. But things changed when Meegan's son was born, and post-natal depression medication saw her gain weight.

Hefford was training for a bodybuilding competition at the time of her death. She was drinking protein shakes and eating protein-rich foods to get in shape, but White said her diet soon became "more and more restricted".

Photo: Getty

It was only after her death that her family found out she had a rare genetic disorder -- known as Urea Cycle Disorder -- which hampered her body's ability to break down her high-protein diet.

READ MORE: Mother's Warning After Claims Her Daughter Died From Protein Shake Use

Those with the disorder are deficient in enzymes that help to remove nitrogen, a waste product of protein, from the blood. Instead, it builds up in the bloodstream in the form of highly toxic ammonia, which can reach the brain, causing irreversible damage and --  in some cases -- death.

"It was a silent killer, and the endless protein shakes and dangerous dieting were Meegan’s downfall," White said.

"We had no idea her obsession with health would end up killing her."

10 daily has contacted White for comment.

Are Protein Supplements Safe?

While Hefford's story is a tragic one, experts claim it's an unusual case that carries important reminders amid an industry characterised by "sweeping statements".

"The most important message is that more protein doesn't equal better," sports dietitian Simone Austin told 10 daily.

Taking more protein doesn't necessarily mean more muscle; in fact, it can be harmful.

Protein is formed by amino acids and is an essential macro nutrient which provides energy to fuel the body. Both amino acids and protein work to build muscle and improve performance.

According to Austin, the recommended amount of protein needed to gain muscle is about 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Photo: Meegan Hefford via Facebook

"That's looking at having some with each meal, and spreading it out over the day, so it's not a huge amount," she said. 

"After that, your body isn't going to use much more protein. You're more likely to break it down and either store it as body fat or use it as energy." 

A 2012 survey found most Australians were consuming about double the recommended intake of protein per day, with 99 percent of respondents meeting or surpassing the intake.

Many will use dietary supplements in the form of shakes, bars and other meal replacement products -- the basis of a now-booming industry in Australia.

According to a 2018 report by Complementary Medicines Australia, the country's complementary medicines industry made $4.9b in revenue last year -- including $2.77b in vitamin and dietary supplements -- and is expected to grow by another $2b over five years.

But there are growing concerns about the safety and contents of products.

READ MORE: Tragic Warning After Young Man's Accidental Caffeine Powder Overdose 

Austin warned extra ingredients are often found in protein supplements.

"Some protein powders will have artificial sweeteners or caffeine in them, so it's very important to know what else is in your powder before taking it," she said.

"You should always seek advice before taking them and follow the recommended dosages."

Calls For Tighter Regulation Of A Booming Industry

Two years on from Hefford's death, White said she wants to see stricter regulations on the sale of protein powder and supplements.

"Only certified nutritionists should offer advice on dieting, and I urge people to get medical checks before drastically changing their food intake," she said.

"It’s too late for Meegan, but I hope by sharing her story she can save another family from this pain."

Many people take protein powder as a workout supplement. Photo: Getty

In Australia, protein supplements are classified either as food or as a therapeutic good. In most cases, they're regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

After Hefford's death, federal health minister Greg Hunt reportedly requested FSANZ clarify the regulatory status of protein supplements.

This month, the federal government sought an immediate review of concentrated caffeine products -- another form of supplement -- following the death of another young Australian, Lachlan Foote,  after he ingested a protein shake with a legal amount of caffeine powder.

10 daily has contacted Minister Hunt's office to confirm both reports.

Lachlan Foote was remembered as a talented musician and generous friend. Photo: Facebook

Austin is calling on stricter laws around the sale of supplement products and "greater adherence" to the Food Standards Code from brands.

"At the end of the day, we need to educate consumers and push a food-first approach," she said.

Featured image: Getty

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au