Protein shake death: is regulation necessary?

Protein ShakesCC: Victor Freitas at Unsplash

Protein-heavy diets have become almost mainstream. Whether you’re a fan of fat-filled fads such as Keto or you love the lean menu of South Beach, you’re unlikely to raise any eyebrows with your diet plan. Sadly, one woman’s penchant for protein shakes has resulted in an untimely death.

At the age of 25, Meegan, a young mom of two, died following heavy protein shake consumption. Since her unfortunate passing, Meegan’s Mom has begun calling for the ban of protein shakes. While the headlines may introduce this tragedy as a protein shake overdose, there’s more to the incident than meets the eye.

How did protein shakes result in a young death?

Meegan’s love of protein shakes began when she started using them to lose her baby weight. Alongside eating a protein-rich diet, she began working out enthusiastically. As her body transformed and she developed a thirst for further results, her workout sessions became an admirable hobby.

Unfortunately, Meegan wasn’t aware that she had a rare condition that made her hobby dangerous: urea cycle disorder. When most of us workout, our bodies remove any ammonia that builds up in our bloodstream as a result. As your body breaks protein apart and amino acids are produced, ammonia builds up. We need certain enzymes to do this, but the woman in question was missing an enzyme.

If ammonia reaches dangerous levels, it affects the brain, resulting in significant brain damage. In the case in question, Meegan was found already brain damaged by two individuals who came to view her home.

Urea cycle disorders rest on a large spectrum. They range from mild to severe, which means those who suffer from them will have varying responses to the ammonia present in their bloodstream. As an enthusiastic fitness fanatic, Meegan likely pushed her disorder to its limits. By exercising at a higher frequency than most people and consuming large amounts of protein, she unknowingly placed herself in a perilous position.

Why the regulation of protein shakes?

When tragedies such as Meegan’s occur, it’s natural to seek a resolution through grief. Protein shakes feature staggeringly high volumes of protein. They’re excellent for post-workout recovery, and some come in a pre-workout format. If Meegan was a protein shake user, she was contributing to the high levels of ammonia present in her bloodstream.

Meegan’s Mom is exploring protein shake regulation with the aim of protecting others. However, only 1 in 8,000 suffers from the condition that Meegan had. Even fewer people will workout to the extent that she did or consume the same levels of protein.

What’s the issue with regulation?

Regulating a product that’s largely safe could make it inaccessible for those who have health and fitness goals. If regulation places a limit on the number of packs that can be purchased at any one time, it prevents people from accessing discounts. Similarly, such regulatory measures are easy to work around. Here in the UK, we can only buy 16 acetaminophens at a time. To overcome this, most people just go from store to store until they have what they need.

If the regulation were to go as far as making protein shakes a prescription-only product, that would prove harmful too. Even in countries where state-funded healthcare exists, such products would be ruled as private prescription only. Again, this places a financial barrier around a convenience product that many use for fitness purposes.

Finally, regulating a product would overshadow any opportunity to raise awareness about diseases such as urea cycle disorder. Instead, it would be better to publicize the disorder and its perils, as well as raising awareness of conditions such as acute kidney injuries following excessive workouts.

Although this incident is tragic, it shouldn’t result in protein shake regulation. It’s a move that would cause more problems than it would resolve.

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About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.