Protein is an essential component of food, and it’s not unhealthy. But according to The Daily Meal, the 25-year-old bodybuilder was preparing for a competition, and she was eating enormous amounts of protein and supplements. Hefford had been a competitive bodybuilder since 2014 and never showed any problems.
But Hefford actually had a genetic condition that meant her body was deficient in one of the enzymes necessary to break down protein. She had no idea she had urea cycle disorder, though. If a person with Hefford’s disorder eats too much protein, it causes a buildup of ammonia in the blood and eventually in the brain.
In a mild case, a person’s body might be able to detoxify the ammonia before it builds up and causes problems. But Hefford’s body couldn’t keep up with the amount of ammonia accumulating in her blood because of her high-protein diet.
Hefford collapsed at home on June 19, and she was pronounced brain dead at the hospital a couple days later.
How did she not know she had it?
Hefford and her family had no idea she had urea cycle disorder. Most people who have it are unaware, because it is not routinely tested for. Symptoms include agitation, lethargy, disorientation, and lack of attention. But an extreme exercise regimen can also cause those symptoms.
After Hefford’s death, her mother found tons of protein supplements in her apartment. She also found a diet plan that consisted mainly of chicken breasts and egg whites.
Hefford had two small children, a 7-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy.
This is not even the first time something like this has happened, either. Because so many people are unaware they have urea cycle disorder, it sometimes happens that an athlete dies suddenly after adopting a high-protein diet.
In general, high protein diets are not dangerous to most people. Doctors don’t recommend high-protein diets like this for a long-term lifestyle. But most people can safely eat a temporary high-protein diet.
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(Image: Instagram / @meeganheff)