Meegan Hefford, 25, worked out at the gym for hours every day. A fitness freak, the Perth resident and a mum of two aspired to enter body building competitions. To build her muscles she followed a high-protein diet and was also a fan of drinking protein shakes with her meals. But, in June 2017, Meegan was found by paramedics in a collapsed state on her bedroom floor. In the hospital she was diagnosed with a urea cycle disorder, a rare condition that meant her body could not digest the huge amounts of protein she was eating. Meegan’s unknown condition caused permanent brain damage after the toxins reached her brain.

Two days after being taken to hospital, Meegan was declared brain dead and her mother Michelle White made the decision to turn off life support. Devastated Michelle spoke out last year about her daughter’s death and is calling out to people to take caution with fitness supplements.

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Look around and you will agree that protein supplements are becoming a rage. The fact that the global market for protein shakes is expected to reach $21.5 billion by 2025 as per a 2019 report by Grand View Research, Inc.

Marketed through strong brand campaigns and promoted by fitness influencers, an array of protein supplements are now flying off the shelves in the UAE. And just like Meegan, scores of fitness enthusiasts relish mixing in scoops of protein powder to their smoothies and milk shakes as it's considered to be a convenient option to boost muscle health, reduce cravings and feel full for long.

Protein supplements sure come loaded with benefits as protein is an essential macro nutrient for building muscles, bones, hair and nails. But it’s excess consumption that can cause more harm than good. Anosh Patel, a Dubai-based personal trainer, says he has been drinking protein shakes four to five times a week for over six years now.  “But it’s always no more than two scoops and only after my intensive workout.” He also consumes protein bars occasionally to wade off hunger pangs, but again those that are low in sugar. “I see a trend that a lot of people are consuming protein products without knowing much about them. I would suggest always take it under expert advice and keep yourself hydrated.”

So, what do protein powders contain? They are derived from powdered forms of protein that are found in plants (such as soybeans, peas, potatoes, rice, peanuts or hemp), eggs, or milk (in the form of casein or whey protein). They may also include added sugars, artificial flavouring and thickeners. A commonly recommended dose of protein powder for an active adult is one to two scoops (25 to 50g) per day.

But exceeding those prescribed scoops could potentially lead to a host of health issues. “Protein supplements are isolated proteins which are easily and quickly absorbed post consumption. This sudden increased in the protein levels processed in our body leaves behind high levels of metabolic waste products such as urea and nitrogen that pose a heavy workload on the kidneys. This can eventually even lead to kidney failure,” warns Juliot Vinolia, clinical dietitian and Head of Dietary Services at Medeor Hospital, Dubai. The risks increase when you also do not consume enough water to help the kidneys flush out the toxins.

Taking concentrated form of amino acids in the form of protein supplements could result in fatty liver in the long run, warns clinical dietitian Juliot Vinolia

Both whey and casein, two popular ingredients found in protein supplements, are derived from milk. For those who are lactose intolerant consuming protein supplements with whey and casein can irritate the bowel, cause nausea and bloating.  Some of the supplements may be high in added sugar and sweeteners resulting in weight gain. “Risks of taking concentrated form of amino acids in the form of protein supplements in the long run could result in fatty liver which can also affect the gallbladder and pancreas, leading to osteoporosis, high uric acid levels, gout and hypertension,” says Juliot.

Some of the plant-based protein powders have also been found to contain heavy metals. In a study conducted by non-profit organisation Clean Label Project in 2018 screening 134 of the top-selling protein powders in North America it was revealed that they contained metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A (BPA, which is used to make plastic), pesticides, or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions. The toxins were absorbed by the plants from the soil. 

According to USDA 2015-2020 guidelines a healthy and active adult requires 0.8g of dietary protein per kilo of their body weight, which is roughly 60-80g of protein per day from a balanced diet. That means if you weigh around 65kg, then your ideal protein intake should be 52-84g per day. You would also need to maintain your protein intake with the calories consumed. For an average active individual with a healthy weight, the protein required should be within the safe limits of 10 to 30 per cent of their recommended calorie intake. But if you are planning to bulk up your body you will need to increase those numbers.

Supplementing an already nutritious diet with a protein product should always be done under expert advice. Several clients of Anthony White, a Dubai-based personal trainer, consume some form of protein supplements on a regular basis for various reasons. “Some of them live incredibly chaotic work lives where convenience is paramount. Some are vegetarian or vegan and require plant-based supplements to ensure they are consuming adequate daily protein. Or if they are training everyday they require recovery and muscle repair to be fast and effective. But with all my clients I strategise a healthy and nutritious diet first that helps them consume all the macro nutrients, vitamins and mineral they need to achieve their goals,” says Anthony. He himself includes a scoop of protein supplement to his morning smoothie five days a week.

On my way to work in the morning, Anthony usually drinks a smoothie consisting of oats, peanut butter, frozen berries and whey protein

“I wake up early and usually make a smoothie that I drink on my way to work consisting of oats, peanut butter, frozen berries and whey protein. At weekends, when I can enjoy a proper breakfast at leisure, I don’t need the convenience of a protein supplement.”

Nutritionists say protein needs can be easily met through natural whole food aiming on an average of 60-80g per day.

For an average adult weighing 75kg, Juliot recommends 25g of protein at breakfast, 5g through a mid-morning snack, 20g at lunch, additional 5g at tea time and 20g at dinner. To build lean muscle an additional of 20-30 grams can be obtained through post work out snacks such as egg whites, almond milk, nuts, quinoa and low-fat yogurt based smoothies with potassium rich fruits such as bananas, berries, apples.

Protein products are called ‘supplements’ for a reason and should only be used to complement a healthy and nutritious diet.

“First look at what you are regularly consuming because I can guarantee you will be able to make a huge change to your physique by changing what you put on your plate every day. Supplements can help, but that’s all they can do,” suggests Anthony.

How to meet your protein needs

Breakfast 25g

• One cup of milk or 30g of cheese

• One egg

• One cup of cereal or two slices of wholemeal bread

Midmorning 5g

• A handful of almonds or walnuts

• Lunch 20g

• A cup of cooked lentils or 60g of lean chicken or meat or fish fillet or 30g of cheese or a cup of yogurt

• A cup of cooked rice or pasta

Tea time 5g

• A slice of cheese toast or half a cup of home-made granola

• Dinner 20g

• Options can be same as lunch