Note: this article is part of the IBD Index. Last updated on July 9, 2022 (added bullet point about vitamin A detox as a potential mechanism).
I’ve personally been experimenting with a bean-protocol-esque diet recently, and I plan to start delving into the science (or pseudoscience) behind it in the near future. Follow me on Instagram for personal content related to the bean protocol, as well as snippets of research as I work on an in-depth “Science Behind the Bean Protocol” blog post.
Table of Contents
Who came up with the bean protocol?
What is the bean protocol?
Is there scientific evidence to support the bean protocol?
How might the bean protocol help with IBD?
Are there any risks to the bean protocol?
FODMAPs and tolerance of beans
Food relationship and quality of life
Who Came Up With the Bean Protocol?
The bean protocol was developed by Karen Hurd in response to her experience saving her 18-month-old daughter’s life. Her daughter was dying of liver failure following organophosphate poisoning from an insecticide, but doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on and were unable to help.
Hurd’s frantic research led her to the discovery of enterohepatic recirculation: the process by which bile and some fat-soluble toxins are re-absorbed from the intestine. She immediately began administering psyllium husk to her daughter on the basis of evidence that soluble fiber binds to bile and fat-soluble toxins, preventing their reabsorption and enabling their elimination. Her daughter began improving almost immediately, and now lives a normal healthy life as an adult.
Hurd took the principle of “soluble fiber to eliminate toxins” and turned it into what she now calls “the bean protocol.” The protocol is being increasingly employed in the treatment of health conditions from acne to IBD, with rather impressive anecdotal success.
Of note, although the bean protocol is Hurd’s brainchild, Unique Hammond – who initially learned about the protocol from Hurd – has taken it and run with it, becoming the primary “bean protocol” presence on social media and the main source of information, courses, and consulting.
What Is The Bean Protocol?
For specific details about what the protocol entails, I think you’ll have to purchase Unique Hammond’s course ($195). Karen Hurd has quite a few courses of her own, but they’re health condition specific, and I don’t see a basic “this is the bean protocol” course from her.
Anyway, the gist of the protocol is to eat small amounts of beans (from 1 tbsp to 1/4 c) several times per day (like 3-8x) to support the natural detox that comes with the binding and elimination of bile (and any associated fat-soluble toxins). Beans are emphasized for their high soluble fiber content, but also for their nutrient density and general health-promoting properties. Certain versions of the protocol (for particular health conditions) also recommend supplementing with psyllium husk, harkening back to the bean protocol’s heroic origins.
Other bean protocol guidelines (in addition to eating lots of beans) include:
- No caffeine
- No alcohol
- No sugar (even fruit)
- No dairy
- No fatty/processed meats
- No saturated fats (even coconut oil)
- No supplements
- Eat 1.5 cups of salted nuts per day
- Don’t eat fat at the same time as beans*
- Drink plenty of warm or room-temp water (not cold!)
- Avoid fragrances (even essential oils)
- Get plenty of rest
- Avoid intense exercise
*My understanding is that this guideline is to maximize the bile/toxin-binding potential of the soluble fiber, rationale being that dietary fat will bind to the soluble fiber present in the meal and reduce its ability to bind bile/toxins further down in the gut. This means that the requisite nuts should be eaten as snacks, away from the beans. I believe that for certain conditions such as constipation, the bean/fat guideline is eliminated (heh).
Is There Scientific Evidence to Support The Bean Protocol?
I didn’t mention this earlier, but Unique Hammond has an incredible story of recovery from severe Crohn’s disease. That’s how she ended up on the protocol to begin with, and why she’s such a passionate evangelist for it now. So at the very least, between her and the dozens of other success stories, we have anecdotal evidence for the success of the bean protocol in IBD.
Scientific evidence, however, is another matter entirely. Although the bean protocol has exploded in popularity just in the past year or so (thanks in large part to the Expanded podcast and Juli Bauer from PaleOMG), I think we’re still a long way from any bean-protocol-specific clinical research, so we’ll be stuck with mechanistic theories for the foreseeable future.
But as far as mechanistic theories go, there’s a lot to dig into with this protocol. A lot. The science behind the bean protocol will eventually get its own post, because it’s a veritable playground for physiological theorizing and dot-connecting, and the mix of hard science with pseudoscience with hard-science-pretending-to-be-pseudoscience with pseudoscience-pretending-to-be-hard-science is endlessly fascinating to me. So be on the lookout for a bean protocol scientific exegesis from me sometime in the not-too-distant future.
How Might The Bean Protocol Help with IBD?
But for now, without getting too deep into it, there are several factors I can see that could contribute to positive outcomes for IBD.
- Microbiome support: the polyphenols and prebiotic fibers found in beans are known to support the health of the intestinal microbiome and increase butyrate production, which is vital to colonocyte health.
- Diet quality: the bean protocol is, almost by definition, an extremely nutrient-dense, high-quality, whole-foods diet.
- Removal of food irritants: caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and dairy are common food irritants for those with IBD; this diet eliminates them altogether.
- Improved detox: for all the protocol’s sometimes pseudoscience-y overtones, enterohepatic circulation is a very real thing, and can indeed result in the recirculation of toxins. And soluble fiber does interrupt this process. (The question of whether beans deserve any special recognition in this process vs. other soluble-fiber-rich foods is another question for another post.)
- Liver support: this is one topic I want to delve into much more deeply, but at its core, the bean protocol appears to be an optimally liver-friendly diet. From drastically reducing the burden of “stuff” the liver has to process (scents and other environmental pollutants, supplements, caffeine, alcohol, and even fructose) to improving detox capacity (per the above bullet point), the bean protocol is probably pretty close to what I would consider an “ideal” liver-friendly diet, were I to devise one. And liver health is vitally important to overall health, in IBD patients or otherwise.
- Nervous system support: another topic I want to explore thoroughly. The elimination of caffeine and alcohol, the emphasis on getting plenty of rest, and other factors generally promoted as part of the “bean protocol lifestyle” may contribute to calming an overstimulated sympathetic-dominant autonomic nervous system, which is common in IBD and chronic illness in general.
- Reduction of endotoxin burden: yet another topic I desperately want the time to dig into. This ties into many of the above bullet points (microbiome support, improved detox, and liver support), but also potentially into the protocol-specific requirements to a) eliminate saturated fat, and b) keep fat away from soluble fiber. Based on my preliminary research, both of these factors may reduce the absorption of bacterial lipopolysaccharides (or endotoxin), which would be a huge boon for anyone with IBD or other gut issues. (Click here for some discussion of this topic in the context of a high-fat ketogenic diet.)
- Blood sugar regulation: dysregulated blood sugar can be a significant stress on the body, and there’s plenty of research that fiber-rich foods, and beans in particular, lead to more balanced blood sugar.
- IBD-friendly “intro diet”: Hammond recommends the “white diet” at first for anyone who has severe gut symptoms; I don’t know the specifics, but I believe it’s basically what it sounds like – mostly refined starchy foods and maybe some gentle protein to allow the gut to calm down. The fact that the protocol has a built-in “on-ramp” of sorts for those with severely debilitating gut symptoms probably increases the chances of success.
- Vitamin A detox: if Grant Genereux is even a little bit right about vitamin A toxicity playing into autoimmune disease, that could easily be a mechanism by which the bean protocol works – by supporting the liver and bile detox, the body will eliminate excess vitamin A more efficiently. And the “white diet” mentioned above is likely low in vitamin A, unless someone is eating liver.
As you can see, there’s much to recommend the bean protocol, regardless of its sometimes pseudoscience-y presentation and lack of hard clinical evidence.
Are There Any Risks to The Bean Protocol?
FODMAPs and tolerance of beans
From a physical health perspective, I think the diet is a great option for a long-term dietary pattern. My only concern would be the ability of someone with IBD to tolerate significant quantities of beans, which are a high-FODMAP food.
I do wish the protocol placed more emphasis on properly preparing the beans (ie, soaking them overnight and draining/rinsing prior to cooking), because soaking helps reduce galactooligosaccharide content and makes them much easier on the gut.
This post from Electric Vitality talks more about the FODMAP concern, as well as some concerns regarding SIBO. I definitely think it’s an important consideration, but assuming the beans are properly prepared, I don’t think that an initial intolerance to beans (ie, increase in gut symptoms like bloating) necessarily signals that beans are a bad food for that person.
In some cases that certainly may be true, but all evidence indicates that the intestinal microbiome adapts to dietary constituents over time, so we have every reason to believe that an initial intolerance to beans would decline over time, leaving the person with hopefully improved gut ecology.
Food relationship and quality of life
The main risk I see for the protocol is potentially creating or exacerbating an unhealthy relationship with food (ie, orthorexia). A related concern is the potential for interfering with social life or travel.
The highly specific rule to not mix beans with fat, as well as the strict elimination of entire food groups (dairy, fruit) and caffeine/alcohol, has the potential to trigger unhealthy food obsession in susceptible people. I see no problem with these things as short-term interventions (in fact, I think many of them make a lot of sense), but that level of strictness probably isn’t healthy long-term if it starts to create fear of certain foods or avoidance of situations where the strict diet can’t be maintained (travel, social situations, etc).
Unique Hammond (as the main source of bean protocol wisdom) does a wonderful job cultivating a positive and empowered (as opposed to limited) mindset around food in her online community, but she definitely messages that the protocol should be followed with strict adherence, and even seven years later, she herself rarely eats fruit, and never eats sugar.
This obviously works extremely well for her, but I don’t think there’s good evidence that that level of strict adherence is necessary or optimal long-term for most people. In fact, fruit and dairy can be extremely health-promoting foods for some people, so care should be taken to avoid categorizing these foods as “bad.”
The main message here is the same as with any strict dietary strategy: food is powerful, but a diet that works for others may not necessarily work for you, and remember that there’s more to life than food.
You can also just google “bean protocol” and loads of stuff will come up. Like I said, it’s exploded in popularity in the past year!