A very petite and attractive young woman, who was a competitive bodybuilder, died in Australia. She was found in a coma in her apartment, and when she was rushed to the hospital, doctors found that her system was overwhelmed with ammonia, which of course is deadly. They discovered that she had an undiagnosed disorder called urea cycle disorder.
First, let's review some biochemistry. You know that proteins consist of long complex chains of amino acids. And amino acids consist of carbon chains with the addition of an acid radical and a nitrogen radical: NH2. In breaking amino acids down, the body breaks off the NH2 which becomes NH3, free ammonia, which is highly toxic. But, very rapidly, the body takes two molecules of NH3 and one molecule of carbon dioxide C02 and forms a new substance known as urea. Urea is relatively non-toxic. It is not "hot" the way ammonia is. And in the form of urea, the spent nitrogen is safely excreted by the kidneys.
In urea cycle disorder, the enzyme that converts ammonia to urea is lacking; it is deficient. There are different degrees of severity in this disorder. In her case, it must have been relatively mild since she was never diagnosed. So, she had never previously endured a crisis, and she was completely unaware that she had the disorder. But, she apparently started eating a very high protein diet and also taking protein supplements, and it was just too much. It was overwhelming. The ammonia starting accumulating in her blood, and it poisoned her brain, putting her into a coma, and ultimately, she died.
It's a terrible tragedy for her and her loved ones, particularly her children. And I realize that most people don't have urea cycle disorder. However, we should still learn a lesson from it, that excess protein places a strain on the body that can actually kill.
I saw the images of this woman, and she she looked fit and very cute and not actually bulging with muscles. She looked well toned and sculpted, but her muscles did not look particularly large. She still looked very feminine. My point is that she could have acquired and maintained that degree of muscularity, which she had, with just an ordinary amount of protein.
I am presently a 66 year old man, and I am most certainly NOT trying to enlarge my muscles. However, I would very much like to hold on to the muscles that I have and the amount of strength that have. And I think I can do that without loading protein. Just through healthy eating in general with moderate protein consumption (and I prefer plant proteins like nuts and beans) and by exercising and also keeping my DHEA level up, I expect to do that well into my 70s. And again, I am not making any effort at all to consume more protein.
The U.S. government recommends 56 grams of protein today for the average adult male, which works out to right about 2 ounces a day. That means from all the foods I eat, I only have to get 2 ounces of protein to meet my daily requirement. However, even that includes a bit of a premium. Odds are very great that even 45 grams would be enough.
When you consume less protein, the body slows the rate at which it is broken down. And in my case, I have been eating the way I do for so long, my body is completely used to it and totally adapted to it. I am lean, but I am actually more muscular than the average 66 year old male, and I am maintaining that muscle without meat, dairy, fish, eating mostly fruits, vegetables, green salads, raw nuts, and beans. So, what are the chances that that tiny little woman needed vast amounts of protein? She didn't.
When people do that- eat vast amounts of protein- most of it doesn't even get used as protein. Most of it is not turned into muscle. Most of it is just broken down by the liver and kidneys, and at a burden to those organs.
Basically, if you are eating unprocessed natural foods with reasonable variety, and you are getting enough food, that is, enough calories, you will automatically get enough protein. You don't even have to worry about it.
There is only 1 percent protein content to human breast milk- the lowest protein content of any mammalian milk by far- and yet human babies can double their weight on it in 6 months. And they are putting on protein in the form of muscle, bone, etc. The fact is that humans are really not adapted to a high protein diet. And it doesn't matter that some of our pre-historic ancestors ate that way. They had to. They were living through an ice age, and there was little or no plant around for most of the year. So, just because they had to do it doesn't mean that we should do it when food is plentiful for us throughout the year even in the far north.
I even have a friend here in Austin who is a dentist, and he is also a triathlete. And he happens to adhere to the paleo concept. However, he even knows that too much protein is dangerous. So, what he does is emphasize fats and keeps his protein intake moderate. He knows he does not need a lot of protein to perform athletically.
So, let us all learn something from the tragic death of this young woman. Let's just assume that we all have a touch of urea cycle disorder.