Eating too much protein will kill you? That’s the message left by hundreds of headlines and news stories earlier this week. But the statement was misleading at best and untrue in regards to the individual who died. Yet most stories ran with quotes like this:
Meegan Hefford, a mother of two and bodybuilder, died after an overconsumption of protein shakes, supplements and protein-rich foods.
Source: Bodybuilder mom dies from too much protein before competition | New York Post
or “That Extra Scoop of Protein in Your Shake Might Actually Kill You”
The family is calling for government regulation of “protein shakes or supplements”, presumably to require a doctor’s prescription and be dispensed at a pharmacy.
Many news stories about this event imply that eating too much protein will kill you. Which it can, if you too suffer from a rare medical disorder. She had a genetic disorder that caused her body to fail to remove ammonia from the blood stream. That’s what killed her.
The disorder is “urea cycle disorder“:
is a genetic disorder caused by a mutation that results in a deficiency of one of the six enzymes in the urea cycle. These enzymes are responsible for removing ammonia from the blood stream. The urea cycle involves a series of biochemical steps in which nitrogen, a waste product of protein metabolism, is removed from the blood and converted to a compound called urea in the blood. Normally, the urea is transferred into the urine and removed from the body. In urea cycle disorders, the nitrogen accumulates in the form of ammonia, a highly toxic substance, resulting in hyperammonemia (elevated blood ammonia). Ammonia then reaches the brain through the blood, where it can cause irreversible brain damage, coma and/or death.
Men’s Health got the story correct. Days later some of the other headlines morphed into the accurate “Australian mom with rare disorder dies eating high-protein diet“.
The media spun this into a viral fiction suitable for sharing on social media. When push comes to ad revenue, the media pays lip service to accurate reporting: It’s about the clicks and the social media shares. One writer says the media was straight up lying about this story to sell ads (I agree).
To make this work for them, the media down played or censored the rare disorder aspect of the story (censorship, cherry picking). If it is mentioned, it is mentioned in passing or at the end of the article. As shown on our blog, most people only read the headlines (especially those shared on social media) – the headline is the story.
The report – which comes from Australia and has no importance to people in the United States – became a focus because of multiple hooks:
- “eating too much protein” puts fear into everyone that this could happen to them (use of fear)
- Story involves a 25 year old Mom of two kids (stories about Mom’s with young kids target an emotional response),
- The victim was a 25 year old blonde fitness fanatic (she’s cute). You may have noticed that CNN and FOX generally *only* cover “cute lost white chicks”, sometimes for days and weeks on end – yet nearly a million people go missing every year and most are eventually found. But unless the missing are cute or have some other emotional hook attached, there is no news coverage and certainly no national news coverage. The subject’s cuteness is a prime reason for the story to run in the United States (every version of the story I checked had at least one and sometimes many photos of the victim). Heck, this one, with its outrageous fiction headline has five photos of the cute victim! And to further prove the point, the 12 year old story of missing Natalee Holloway is back to “Breaking” and “Developing” news reports today because … she’s cute. Remember, over 2,300 people go missing every day but only the missing cute white chicks get covered by the “news” services with saturation coverage for years.
In short, this story used multiple methods of propaganda for the purpose of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The hooks encouraged the sharing of the story on social media, thereby enlarging the potential ad audience.