As a Naturopath and Clinical Nutritionist specialising in the gut microbiome, my ears perked up when I saw Juli Bauer from PaleOMG talking about something called The Bean Protocol on Instagram. I’ve been following her a long time and I know how much she has struggled with acne for years, both before eating a Paleo diet and all through the many years of eating that diet. It takes huge courage to shift like that to try to fix a problem, especially with such a massive audience watching. Beans are not permitted on a Paleo diet.
I’m always a little skeptical about anything called a “protocol” – especially one that claims to cure so many different ailments - yet I was sufficiently intrigued enough to listen to Juli’s podcast, other related podcasts and also review some other sources to find out more - you can find these at the bottom of the review. There were so many reports of dramatic success across all kinds of health challenges including acne, PMS, infertility, endometriosis, period pain, fatigue and various autoimmune illnesses. Beans and other legumes have most definitely been unfairly demonised in different dietary circles such as Paleo, however some people genuinely do have problems digesting them, such as those with SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), one of the main causes of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Others find that their condition flares with starchy foods of any kind, such as with Ankylosing Spondilitis.
In this article, I want to give you my professional assessment of The Bean Protocol to hopefully help you decide if it’s right for you. I haven’t personally treated anyone using the Bean Protocol, but I am all about the gut microbiome so feel well placed to review the diet. I believe that you can also book a free call with a nutritionist trained in the protocol, so I highly recommend doing that.
Always remember that all diets have a honeymoon period – sometimes lasting a few years - and many of the testimonials are from people still in the honeymoon period.
TL;DR - The Bean Protocol Review
The diet/protocol is a relatively low risk, affordable experiment to try for a few months and I am very supportive that it is a pro-microbiome, anti-inflammatory diet. Also, I genuinely believe that many people have had good results with it. Some people have also found success without cutting out as many foods as recommended. The diet may not be suitable for you if you have SIBO (one of the main causes of IBS), Ankylosing Spondilitis or a history of disordered eating. It does look like a diet where professional guidance, at least initially, would be very wise. The diet has good fundamental principles, but I don’t believe it needs to be followed in the exact way it is currently being used. Finally, some of the scientific rationale for the protocol is not factually sound. Be wary of any protocol that supposedly has all the answers for everything – this is a common marketing tactic used by people like The Medical Medium. They cater to desperately ill people who want to buy in to a story and a clear “answer”.
What is The Bean Protocol?
The diet/protocol is based on the idea of increasing soluble fibre in the diet to help bind bile in the gut that contains toxins and excess hormones for excretion via bowel movements. So, effectively it helps to finalise the process of detoxification after the liver’s detox processes have been completed.
It involves eating beans many times a day (up to 6-8 times) without any fat, or a very small amount, with the theory that the soluble fibre either binds to bile or fat, and it’s the bile that it should be binding to for the excretion/final detoxification to work correctly.
The diet also removes many foods/stimulants referred to as “adrenal whips” (eg. coffee, sugar and fruit) and also emphasises gentle exercise more so than chronic cardio. So it’s actually much more than a diet and has a long list of guidelines.
A list of what is either not allowed or is included
These rules are to be followed for a minimum of 3 months.
- 6-8 half cups of legumes a day – usually every two hours, with no fat consumed within 90 minutes
- A cup and a half of nuts per day
- No fatty meats (including bacon and sausages)
- No soy, dairy, sugar, fruit, coconut oil
- No caffeine
- No cinnamon (?!)
- No supplements
- Only gentle activity is permitted - walking or gentle yoga for example
- Modest protein portions at meal
- No chilled water
- 56 hours of rest per week
- No fragrances - including in personal care products, perfumes, cleaning products ...supposedly even fresh cut roses could cause negative health effects!
Pro’s of The Bean Protocol
There is a lot to like about The Bean Protocol as follows:
- The diet is affordable and accessible. The main cost is working with one of the coaches.
- It could work well as a dietary reset and allow people to more clearly see how different foods affect them
- The emphasis on nervous system care is great
- No special food is needed beyond beans...lots and lots of beans
- Fibre helps with satiety so it can help with blood sugar regulation and weight loss
- Soluble fibre supports Phase 3 detoxification via the bowel
- Legumes contain all-important prebiotic fibres and many legumes also contain polyphenols (eg. black beans, black lentils) – so it’s excellent for the gut microbiome. I believe this is one of the reasons it works outside of any toxin removal
- The prebiotics and polyphenols stimulate production of the anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acid butyrate which I believe is where many of the benefits are derived
- The emphasis is on organic beans which I agree with because non-organic usually contain a pesticide called glyphosate which can harm the gut microbiome (and potentially cause other health issues)
- There is a sound recommendation to start slowly with the beans for some people, to allow their digestion to adjust
- If working with a nutritionist trained in the protocol, it looks like there is a high level of support available
- If removing all supplements, it can help people save money - provided that removing supplements doesn't create any new problems or allow previous problems to return
Con’s of The Bean Protocol
This section contains information about potential areas for concern. Also, I detail some factual inaccuracies being used to promote the protocol. Please note that many of these aren’t necessarily reasons NOT to try the protocol, more my cautions about it based on my qualifications and experience as a Naturopath and Nutritionist.
- There’s quite a long list of foods/drinks/substances/activities not allowed on the protocol. Some of these things seem reasonable on the surface, but all combined are probably not necessary and could cause many people stress
- Some of the rules are quite strict - a lot of foods are removed and there’s a lot of food combining to take in to account (eg. not being able to have fat with the beans) - and the daily routine/schedule looks pretty difficult to maintain. For people who are desperate, are not working or are working from home, this would probably be easier with the help of some reminders set on a cell phone.
- High starch consumption not is suitable for everyone, depending on their condition. Along with soluble fibre, the beans contain starch which can exacerbate various conditions like Ankylosing Spondilitis and Crohn’s disease (a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease). Having said that, one of the well-known coaches of the protocol recovered from Crohn’s with this. It goes to show that everyone is individual.
- Encouraging eating many times a day will interfere with the activity of the Migrating Motor Complex - a known risk factor for SIBO. My motto is “don’t create a new problem trying to fix an existing one” and this is a perfect example of treading carefully. I recommend only eating the beans with that level of regularity for maybe 2-3 months and then backing off to avoid the possibility of SIBO.
- No fruit is permitted – from what I gather, this is recommended for everyone on the diet, but especially for those trying to treat acne. Acne is often caused by insulin spikes, but I don’t believe reasonable amounts of fruits are an issue. Proteins also result in insulin release but are allowed on the diet. We know that a wide diet is the most sustainable one, so I don’t agree with removal of whole fruit. I feel the best option is for the individual to experiment without fruit initially and then gradually try to re-introduce it.
- The diet seems to be promoting fruit-phobia which we have already seen in the keto, carnivore and low carb communities. There was a claim on one of the podcasts that sugar depresses the immune system by 50%. This claim has never been proven beyond a petri dish back in the 1970s! I certainly don’t believe in excessive sugar consumption, but sugar and fruit phobia is unnecessary and harmful. Some people may benefit from removing these foods for a short period, but as far as a long term approach, I doubt that small amounts of fruit or sugar are harmful. Fresh fruits are nutrient rich and not energy dense, so they are a great diet inclusion for the overwhelming majority of people.
- A high intake of beans increases the amount of phytates being consumed. Phytates in high amounts interfere with mineral absorption. In a diet with a normal level of beans this wouldn’t be an issue but when they are being eaten to such an extent, it is a genuine concern.
- May exacerbate IBS as these foods are high in FODMAPs. While a low FODMAP diet isn’t something that should be adhered to long term as it negatively affects the large intestine microbiome, those with IBS do need to be quite cautious here. In response to criticisms that people don’t tolerate the beans on The Bean Protocol, the response given is that it’s because of all the toxins the individual must have, but it’s much more likely that it’s because the person has a damaged brush border and also SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). The SIBO causes excessive fermentation of the fibre in the beans which creates the symptoms. That’s why people usually feel better on a low FODMAP diet, because they cannot digest those foods well. I don’t believe it’s all about the toxins. I do agree that stress plays a big role, I think everyone is in agreement there.
Also, hormones do not cause gas via fermentation – this was a claim made on a podcast. The fibre in the beans causes fermentation by bacteria – this is a well-established mechanism and this is something that is expected when eating beans and it shows that beneficial fermentation in the large intestine is occurring. The problem is when excessive fermentation is occurring due to bacterial overgrowth which can occur in either the large or small intestine. This bacterial overgrowth may be due to a number of underlying causes, so when someone complains about excessive gas, bloating or pain, the reason should be investigated and not dismissed as “hormones needing to be cleared out”. This looks like a way of saying absolutely everyone should be able to eat this diet, which is simply not true. No diet is ever suitable for everyone. I do agree that people should start low and slow with eating beans which can help an individual’s microbiome adjust to the new food, but the logic being given isn’t right.
To offset this, my recommendation would be to start slow and low, and start with more easily digestible legumes such as tinned lentils.
- Another claim, which is factually incorrect, is that we can digest food either with the enzymes our body makes or by fermentation. This is simply untrue. Fermentation is the action of bacteria acting on the fiber that we cannot digest. This is not digestion. The fiber is used as fuel by the bacteria so they can produce beneficial substances for use by us. This is one of the reasons we need the bacteria – because they can make use of these undigestible substances in foods to make them in to compounds we can actually use. Polyphenols are in the same category. Bacteria convert them for us in to usable low molecular weight compounds. Also, it’s not a choice between either enzymatic digestion OR fermentation – both of these processes occur (as they should) and there is no imbalance or competition between the two.
- There is no support for bile production/flow or for phase 1 and 2 of the liver’s detoxification system. This protocol only covers Phase 3 of detoxification, so there is an assumption there that an individual’s liver and gallbladder function is adequate. It would be good to see more of an emphasis on supporting Phase 1 and 2 of liver detox to work correctly, because these are the steps required before the toxins even get to the gut. This involves specific nutrients like high quality protein.
- Some people find that beans constipate them and the advice given to them by proponents of the diet is that it’s not the beans causing this. I don’t think this is necessarily true. We know that as a result of bacterial fermentation of fibre in foods like beans can create hydrogen gas which then may convert to methane gas. Methane is well known to slow down motility and is often the culprit for constipation. So, I don’t think the beans are off the hook!
- If legumes are not prepared correctly, some sensitive people might experience digestive upset. The Eden brand prepares their legumes correctly and for those cooking at home, pressure cooking is generally very helpful. Also being mindful of which legumes cause issues for you as an individual is important. Chickpeas seem to be one of the legumes most reported to cause issues, whereas lentils and black beans are usually tolerated better.
- Eating so many beans may leave little room to eat other prebiotic foods. Remember, diversity of bacterial species is one of the cornerstones of a healthy gut microbiome. A diverse microbiome requires a diverse array of plant foods in an individual’s diet.
- The standard version of the diet recommends not eating any fat (or a tiny tiny amount) when consuming beans, because apparently the fat blocks the activity of the soluble fibre binding to the bile containing the toxins. I have to say, I don’t think there is any science to support that rationale - I could be wrong though. If someone is eating enough of the soluble fibre and eating a modest amount of fat at the same time, I doubt that fat would really interfere since the fat is probably going to be absorbed by the small intestine anyway before the binding/excretion process starts.
I read recently that for people experiencing constipation before or during this protocol, they are advised to add more fat in to help with that via lubricant effects. Which then begs the question “does anyone really need to restrict their fat so strictly when eating the beans?”
- Some people will have trouble sticking to some of the rules and restrictions, such as very minimal fat with beans, consuming beans very regularly throughout the day
- There will be gas and lots of it! Usually this does settle down once the microbiome adjusts but for those with visceral hypersensitivity, it may cause pain
- In the latest version of the protocol, up to 1½ cups of nuts are recommended which seems excessive (and expensive) to me – on the basis that they help the skin, joints and hair. Nuts no doubt are high in many nutrients, but I feel this amount is probably too high because it may displace other foods that are essential for skin, joints and hair such as gelatinous cut of meat. The amino acids in gelatin are an essential building block for collagen in the body, along with Vitamin C, which is high in fruit – another food that is somewhat restricted on this diet. I’m also a bit confused about where all these nuts can fit in to a diet where fats can’t be eaten with all of the bean servings.
- The diet could very well trigger disordered eating. Initially at least, it’s recommended to cut out quite a few foods, so the diet works similarly to an elimination diet, although there’s not a lot of clarity on re-introducing foods. For someone who decides to do this diet themselves without professional guidance, this could potentially trigger disordered eating and stress. If you’ve ever experienced disordered eating or high levels of stress around your diet, please be cautious.
- The diet may be low in different nutrients depending on how it’s executed. This is the case with any diet. But since a healthful food such as fruit is removed and there is such a huge emphasis on beans, I highly recommend tracking your micronutrients for a week or two on this diet using Cronometer just to ensure there are no issues
- Avoidance of all fragrances, including essential oils and even fresh cut flowers! This is recommended on the basis that fragrances can stimulate the nervous system. We do know that artificial fragrances – such as in perfumes, personal care products and cleaning products – can act as endocrine disruptors and may be a factor in hormone and inflammation-driven conditions such as endometriosis, however the notion that fresh cut roses are harmful is obviously way out there. I agree with removal of artificial fragrances but I’m not on board with the idea that fresh flowers are a problem
- All supplements are banned from use. While I feel that many people are overdoing supplements – especially if someone is self-treating and not working with a healthcare professional – many people genuinely do need supplements, so this could cause problems either short term or long term. While it’s a good thing to get a clear view of how The Bean Protocol works for you, I always recommend staying aware of potential problems coming up. That goes for any major diet change really.
Why I think it works
I don’t believe the diet is working for all of the reasons that people think it does. I definitely agree with the main premise of soluble fibre helping the excretion of toxins. Here are the reasons I believe the diet helps people.
- There’s a strong emphasis on nervous system support which we know is essential for good digestion and health overall. Most people on the diet are advised to avoid heavy cardio and any other forms of high intensity activity while they are on the diet, or at least a few months. Obviously, this would help anyone no matter what diet they are eating.
- It’s giving the microbiome exactly what it needs – prebiotic fibre and polyphenols. These compounds are sorely lacking in so many people’s diets that simply adding them will have all sorts of great health benefits outside of toxin and hormone excretion.
- Phase 3 detox – soluble fibre binding to the bile with toxins ready for excretion (this is the main point used to promote the diet).
- Satiety – the high level of fibre is excellent for regulating blood glucose levels and for reducing calorie intake. Many people report feeling calmer and experience weight loss on the diet.
- The diet is definitely much less palatable than a standard American/Australian diet so it would naturally reduce the appetite – many people report weight loss on the diet. This is not to say that the foods on the diet lack flavour, it’s more a comparison to hyper-palatable foods that the average person eats regularly. The foods on the diet are also much lower in calories. Without dairy, sugar, junk and caffeine those typical stimulatory foods are removed. There is a lot of obesity research that points to the problems of hyper-palatable and calorie dense foods contributing obesity and metabolic impairment. The weight loss would also be helped by the fact that certain types of gut bacteria are known to help individuals maintain a healthy weight.
- The diet is usually a step up from what people were eating before – any improvement in diet will give people benefits.
- Removal of certain foods that may be inflammatory for some people or cause a spike in stress hormones – eg. coffee, chocolate, dairy, excess sugar intake
- It is most likely lower in fat than many diets since you can’t eat any fat with the beans, and the beans are eaten quite a few times each day. It doesn’t leave much room for fat containing foods, so I assume this is part of the reason people have lost weight.
- It may also lead to a reduction in endotoxins which are considered to be a big part of ill health.
On the whole, the foods included in the Bean Protocol are health-promoting and removing different foods/activities/substances that are inflammatory, nutrient poor or stress-promoting is always a good thing. And clearly, many people have experienced frankly amazing results with a wide variety of conditions – although they do seem to be in the honeymoon phase. As with any health decision, every individual needs to carefully weigh up the pro’s and con’s in relation to their personal situation. It certainly looks like a somewhat low risk, beneficial diet to experiment with for a few months, after which point the individual can decide what parts they want to stick with and what can be relaxed. I’m not convinced that the beans need to be eaten quite so often each day to get results. To be a truly sustainable diet, it needs to be less restrictive.
These are the articles and podcasts I read or listened to in order to write this review. I also spoke with someone who had coaching by a Bean Protocol coach.
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