Can Too Much Protein Kill You?

News headlines a few weeks back grabbed readers attention with clickbait titles like, "bodybuilder" dies from eating too much protein,” and of course, the title of this article.

So, can too much protein kill you? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Unless you have a genetic disorder that prevents you from completely metabolizing protein. Then, it would be like having celiac disease and eating a loaf of wheat bread covered in oatmeal – it’s not going to end well, but it’s probably going to end soon. In this case, the disease was urea cycle disorder.

What Is Urea Cycle Disorder?

Urea cycle disorder is an inborn error of metabolism that results in the accumulation of ammonia, which then goes on to destabilize enzymes until hydrocephaly (water on the brain) results in disorientation, mood swings, lethargy, and perhaps death. The treatment for urea cycle disorder mostly involves just not eating more protein than the body can metabolize. Makes sense, right? Other treatment options include pharmaceutical ammonia scavengers (phenylbutyrate) and specific amino acid supplements (arginine and citrulline), which can increase urea cycle enzymes. For those that don’t know, amino acids are the building blocks and functional components of protein, so in other words, urea cycle disorder is, ironically, treated with parts of proteins.

So What Happened?

As was the case with the unfortunate women in the news, symptoms of urea cycle disorder do not always present themselves in a manner that one might connect to an inborn error of metabolism. Often the disorder goes undiagnosed because the individual is still able to tolerate and metabolize normal dietary amounts of protein. What’s interesting is that the woman had been competing in shows since 2014, and therefore, likely consuming a high protein diet for about 2.5 years before having an issue. The kicker, she was studying medicine and still didn’t put one and two together. Clearly something other than a high-protein diet adversely affected this poor woman.

Blame Wrongfully Placed

Unfortunately, as is the case with most parents, her mother wrongfully places the blame on “protein supplements from the internet.” Not the meat her daughter was eating. Not the protein in rice, potato, or vegetables her daughter may have been consuming. Not herself for not having her daughter screened for the disease. Not her daughter for not recognizing when too much is too much. No, it must be the very specific kind of protein that comes in a tub over the internet. One article even stated, “ don’t contain all the nutrients your body gets from lean meat, which is the safer and healthier choice.” While the rest of us are sitting here like, “HELLOOO?! We use protein powders because we’re already eating lean meat 4+ times per day.” On the flip side, score one for meat – the news is usually telling us to knock that off! It’s about the small victories. Might we also mention that these “unregulated” protein supplements say on the label something like, “do not use as a meal replacement.”

What Does the Science Say About High Protein Consumption?

Scientific investigations, not a one-off random occurrence that goes viral, find that protein (much as supplemental powders) consumed at levels exceeding 3-4 times the recommended amount for 6 months have NO IMPACT on health status. Not to mention, overeating on protein does not result in weight gain. Listen, it’s sad that she died, but ask yourself, is it really protein’s fault? What society are we living in when we have to warn people about food? After all, that’s where all protein powders come from. If you start to feel ill after eating more protein or anything else, get yourself checked for an inborn error of metabolism (there is more than just urea cycle disorder).