As a registered dietitian, I’m all about gut health. The science around it is basically in its infancy, but we do know that diet directly affects the health of our gut microbiome, and that this may impact many processes and conditions around the body. These may include mood, weight, inflammation, disease risk, and more.
I see a lot of incorrect information around gut health being spread by influencers and people who generally are looking to make a buck from the gut health trend. When you’re looking to buy a gut health program or product, it’s important to make sure that the science behind it is solid, and that the person or company selling that product knows what they’re doing.
Beachbody has been working hard lately, hyping its new 4 Week Gut Health Protocol. Knowing that I’d be asked incessantly about it, and being curious as to just what exactly the protocol was, I decided to buy it for myself to get access to the materials.
I did not do the Protocol myself, since it would have been triggering for me. I have had disordered eating habits in the past, and I don’t want to revisit those. Ever.
The Protocol wasn’t too expensive – it set me back around $65 CAD, and it’s entirely video-based with some PDFs. All the weeks are available when you purchase the program (ie, you don’t have to complete one week to move to the next video).
There’s not a lot of material: a few pre-program videos, then one video per week, usually around 5 minutes long. The Gut Health Protocol is meant to be done with Portion Fix containers, so it’s like a hybrid program of Portion Fix and Gut Protocol.
The 4 Week Gut Protocol is led Beachbody Super Trainer Autumn Calabrese. Autumn is arguably one of the most well-known Beachbody trainers. She blocked me on Instagram a while back for commenting on how she is promoting a gut health program by weighing herself weekly in a bikini on social media. Maybe because she didn’t like that I was calling her out for posting triggering content about a gut health program that’s apparently not about weight loss?
It was a post like this.
Sorry, not sorry. I don’t think weighing yourself in a bikini on social media is a good message to be giving to people if you’re selling ‘gut health.’ It’s also very triggering to people when you show the actual number on the scale (I have a photo but am not going to post it) and talk about how you lost 0.5 lb this week because GUT HEALTH PROTOCOL.
Not healthy messaging. That’s my professional opinion.
The female Beachbody trainers seem to be a very homogenous bunch. Thin, white, and privileged, there appears to be very little room for diversity in the group. If they’re promoting only ONE standard of beauty, how does that impact their programming and the way they make everyone else feel about themselves?
The point of the Beachbody Gut Health Protocol is a bit confusing. Is it about gut health? Is it about food ‘sensitivities’ aka intolerances (more on that in a second)?
Gut health and food intolerances are two different things entirely. Poor gut health does not cause food intolerances, and good gut health does not fix them. Let’s just get that all straight.
Starting the Beachbody 4 Day Gut Health Protocol.
When I watched the program videos, the first thing that I noticed was Autumn’s tone. Maybe she’s always like this, but my 11 year old daughter, who was watching with me (more like, she wandered into the room while I was watching because I was yelling swears) was like, ‘she seems like she’s threatening me.’
Autumn’s mispronunciations add entertainment value to the videos.
’Rustic potato’ instead of ‘russet potato’
The Grut Protocol
She narrates the videos like a scowling four year old reading an encyclopedia, which is, incidentally, how it sounds when a person is reading a teleprompter with words and concepts they aren’t necessarily familiar with.
She says things like, ‘it’s important to stay hydrated for so many reasons. It helps with our cells’ and, ‘stress can have a negative impact on the delicate balance your microbiome and can increase the growth of bad bacteria in your gut. I know, that’s a bummer!’
It’s all, like, so sciencey and stuff!
I have to say though, talking on your own to a camera can be uncomfortable and weird. It would have been good to have some legitimate experts in the videos to back up some of what she says.
In her promotional posts/videos, Autumn has been giving the statistic that 70% of adults have undiagnosed food sensitivities.
I have no idea where this statistic came from, and haven’t found any credible sources that cite a number that’s even close to 70%. According to UpToDate, 15-20% of the population reports having a food sensitivity, and I can’t find a reputable stat for the prevalence of undiagnosed food sensitivities. I asked immunologist Dr. Andrea Love about this stat and the entire ‘food sensitivity’ topic. She told me that although the words ‘intolerance’ and ‘sensitivity’ are often used interchangeably, sensitivity is actually NOT a medical term.
She went on to drop the ultimate truth bomb:
Intolerance is a GI-mediated issue which is real. Sensitivity is this vague, mean-nothing phrase that wellness folks sling around to explain all sorts of generic symptoms.
And about that ‘70%’ stat? Dr. Love said the prevalence of food intolerances is currently estimated at around 4%.
Beachbody coaches are posting some pretty crazy (aka not evidence-based) stuff to promote this program.
Check out these IG Stories from one of the BB coaches. Most of the content I’m seeing is something like this:
Linking gut health with any of these conditions, or weight gain or loss, is ridiculous and far beyond what human studies have shown us. As a regulated health professional, I wouldn’t make these claims, and wouldn’t be ALLOWED to make them. I’ve seen the sugar craving one in particular, but again, this is more of a theory than an actual solid fact.
Unfortunately, there’s no oversight or recourse for anyone who isn’t regulated, and spreads stuff like this. They can basically say whatever they want. I’m curious if this person even understands what the microbiome is and what it does.
Taking things out.
A big part of the Protocol is the elimination of foods that Autumn believes we are most sensitive to. These are:
Highly processed soy like ‘fake meats’
According to Dr. Love, the most common food intolerance is lactose. Artificial sweeteners and highly processed soy do tend to cause GI symptoms for many people, but would I always call those ‘intolerances’? Maybe not.
Farting a lot after eating something with soy isolate isn’t necessarily an intolerance. An ingredient which causes gastro symptoms that have a perceptible, consistent negative impact on your life and wellness would be more of an accurate qualification of an ‘intolerance.’
It’s important to note that food allergy isn’t the same thing as food intolerance (these terms are often wrongly used interchangeably). Allergies are mediated by the immune system. Intolerances involve the digestive system, not the immune system.
Other Gut Health Protocol rules include:
Reduce added sugars to no more than 10 grams a day, and choose less processed ones like maple syrup and honey.
I’m going to pop in here to say that ‘less processed’ sugars are exactly the same to our bodies than refined white sugar. I wrote more about that here.
No more than 3 cups of coffee a week, without dairy or soy milk, of course, but 1 teaspoon of organic coconut oil can be used. If you need caffeine, Autumn suggests the BB Energize supplement that has caffeine.
You’re also allowed 1-2 cups of decaf unsweetened tea, but you can have 1/2 teaspoon day of either pure maple syrup or honey. One full teaspoon of these takes you over the 10 gram a day limit for added sugar.
Limit red meat to 1 serving per week.
3 servings of fermented foods a week, which Autumn clearly anticipates we aren’t going to like, so she tells us to ‘put on your big kid pants and just do it.’ When she talks about fermented foods like they’re some sort of disgusting medicine, it’s not a great way to get people to eat them.
The 4 Week Gut Protocol tells followers to consume at least 30 different plants per week, based on the research of Dr. Rob Knight, who is a legit gut health expert. It’s a good goal – most of us don’t eat enough plants, and when we eat them, we tend to choose the same ones again and again.
Eating a bigger variety of plants may increase gut microbiome diversity, which is something we want. Throughout the gut protocol, Autumn encourages us to buy fruits and vegetables that we’ve never tried. This is a good thing!
The program has an extensive food list that tells us what we CAN have. And again, we’re supposed to use the Portion Fix containers to measure out our portions. More on that below.
I’d publish the food lists, but they’re copyrighted. Sorry. They’re unremarkable, anyhow.
4 Week Gut Health Protocol Supplements.
Autumn ‘strongly recommends the Beachbody Optimize enzymes.’ She tells us that ‘if you’ve been struggling with GI distress, the enzymes can help a lot.’
According to Autumn, ’when the body doesn’t secrete digestive enzymes in adequate quantities, it can affect our bodies’ ability to break down food we eat and to absorb those nutrients.’
This can be true, but the other half of the story is that most healthy people secrete more than enough digestive enzymes and don’t need this sort of supplement.
The dose for Optimize is 6 pills/day – 2 before each meals. Optimize is $60 for 126 capsules, exactly 21 days’ worth.
Along with Optimize, she recommends BeachBody Revitalize pre and probiotics, taken 1x day with breakfast.
Vegan Shakeology is also recommended as part of the program. Autumn claims that ‘getting in your Shakeology is going to be a great way to get in the nutrients your body needs. It’s a nutrient-dense safety net.’ I’m not sure which ‘nutrients’ she’s talking about, because aside from 6 grams of iron per serving, Shakeology doesn’t seem to be a great source of any other hard-to-find nutrients – like magnesium, for example.
Vegan shakeology also has 5 grams of added sugars per serving, which makes up half of what Autumn tells us is our daily added sugar ‘allowance.’ Not only that, but vegan Shakeology contains inulin, aka chicory root. Inulin is a FODMAP and can cause gas and bloating. It also has stevia in it, which is a non-nutritive sweetener.
Shakeology, like any premade shake, is ultra-processed. Hello, aren’t we supposed to be taking that sort of food OUT of our diets with this plan?
Or is that only if Beachbody doesn’t sell the food in question?Aren’t all of the above things contrary to the rules, and the point, of the Gut Health Protocol?
I ordered the Vegan Shakeology sample pack to try. It tasted like sadness – gritty, with a stevia aftertaste and cloying, fake flavor. I’d have to be starving to even think of drinking that mess. My daughter tried it with me, and she literally gagged and poured the rest down the sink.
The ‘Find your calorie bracket’ situation.
And here, the tide changes. One of the pre-program videos is all about our calorie budget.
This gut health program is being sold as a way to figure out your intolerances and help your gut, I’m not sure what weight loss has to do with any of that, since science hasn’t yet figured out if or how the gut is linked to weight in any way.
Without a doubt, one of the focuses of the Gut Protocol is weight loss, even if Beachbody wants to make it seem like it’s all about gut health.
Here’s how Autumn introduces this part of the program:
You probably have a few goals with the gut protocol…but in order to make sure we’re eating the ‘right amount of all the delicious yummy food that we get to have, we also need to decide if one of our goals is to lose weight or maintain our current weight.
My comment: WHY? Why couldn’t people do this program and not even consider weight? Think about it: how is weight loss relevant to figuring out your intolerances? Are we less likely to have intolerances if we lose or maintain our weight? What’s the connection here?
When you start following the protocol, you might drop a few pounds no matter what, even if your goal is to maintain weight, because we’re eating in such a healthy way that when we start putting all this healthy food in, inflammation calms down, typically the number on the scale goes down.’
Okay, less inflammation does not equal weight loss. This is not a thing.
I have to think that the weight loss angle makes the program more marketable to more people. That’s a shame.
The calorie budget I ended up with was the most shocking part.
Autumn tells us to multiply our current weight by 11 to get our baseline calorie needs, then for weight loss, subtract 400 calories from that number. Note: there’s no differentials for gender, activity level, or age.
My calorie budget for weight loss came out to be 1118. That’s less than what a toddler needs.
Even the woman who she used as a demo, at 160lb, only gets 1360 calories a day. This is extremely low.
If we want to maintain our current weight, she advises not to subtract the 400 calories. Mine would be 1518, which is still far below what’s healthy for me.
Then she starts talking about Portion Fix calorie brackets and how many of which containers we ‘get to have.’ That we ‘aren’t going to be deprived’ during the four weeks, and that we get one ‘yellow container swap’ aka ‘treat’ a week.
This sort of verbiage is troubling. Sorry honey, we don’t ‘get to have’ a certain number of containers. We aren’t ‘allowed’ a certain number of calories. We should be able to EAT. One yellow container a week for ‘treats‘ isn’t a healthy way to look at food. And did I mention that if she’s so concerned about the effect of stress on the microbiome, why isn’t she taking into account the stress of low-calorie dieting?
She says, ‘track your containers. Eating all of your containers is important, and it’s also important that you don’t eat more containers than you’re allotted for. Remember, we’re practicing ‘portion control.’
Wait. How does portion control play into gut health? How many times am I going to ask the same question? AGHHH!
I fall into the lowest calorie bracket for Portion Fix is the A group, which is 1200-1500.
Here’s a sample meal plan for Portion Fix A:
Gut Health Protocol Week 1
Week one is spent getting used to the protocol. Autumn tells us to remove foods from the house that don’t fit into the program. She tells us, ’I eat like this on a regular basis and I never feel deprived.’
Okay, I have one. Just because someone says something ‘works’ for them, doesn’t mean that it’s going to ‘work’ for you, or that it’s healthy. I’m just going to leave that here.
Autumn tells us that ‘you may have detox symptoms in week one – if you’ve been eating a lot of processed foods, eating in this new way is going to be an adjustment for your body. you might experience mild headaches, tiredness, stronger cravings at first. It should pass after a few days or the first week and if it doesn’t, you might want to check with your doctor.’
Note to everyone: symptoms like these during low-calorie diets are often attributed to ‘detoxing.’ The truth is that these are actually symptoms of NOT EATING ENOUGH.
NOT. EATING. ENOUGH. IS. NOT. ‘DETOXING.’
Gut Health Protocol Week 2
The Week 2 video starts with more weight loss talk.
You may have lost 3+ pounds or more in week 1, you might lose less in week 2, when you lose a lot of weight in one week, your body needs to make sure everything is okay before it continues to let go of weight, so don’t panic or quit.
If you didn’t lose a lot of weight in week 1, that’s also normal. If you’re already used to eating clean, if you don’t have a lot of weight to lose, or your body just might need more time to adjust to the changes.
This is definitely as much about weight loss as it is about gut health. Let’s be honest here.
‘Eating clean.’ Give me a break.
Week 2 is about stress reduction, and Autumn gives us some tips and PDFs on how to do that.
She puts in one of many plugs for FIXATE recipes (note the apt name ‘FIXATE.’) and the accompanying 4 Weeks for Every Body exercise program.
Gut Health Protocol Week 3
Week 3 focuses on sleep, which is fine.
What’s not fine is the other focus of Week 3, which is ‘chewing your food.’
Autumn says this:
When you take time to chew, you break food down better, and allow enzymes in your saliva to to help start breaking down food as well. When you take time to chew, it also slows you down while you eat, which allows you time to recognize that you’re full, and can help prevent overeating.
One piece of common advice is chew food 32 times before swallowing. This really breaks your food down. We chew for like 5-6 bites and swallow. See how it feels to chew each bite 32 times.
Where do I start.
As a nutrition professional, I do not agree with this advice, and in fact, I find it very concerning.
Although we know that mindful eating may help us eat less, I believe that counting chews of food is a disordered eating habit. Like counting bites, counting chews is methodical and regimented and not conducive to enjoying food.
According to Dr. Meagan Gallagher, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, chewing anything that long will make it into mush – reducing the palatability of it, and making eating aversive. Making eating aversive is disordered.
It also places the focus on external cues, rather than internal cues such as readiness to swallow and mouth feel.
After all of the diet and weight loss talk, the ‘you get to have one treat a week!’ stuff, and the disordered chewing advice, the 4 Week Gut Health Protocol seems like the focus isn’t really on gut health at all. It’s mostly about weight loss.
I have nothing against weight loss, except when:
It’s sold as something else, aka ‘gut health.’
It’s done as a restrictive, regimented plan that’s probably unsustainable.
It includes recommendations for what my expert and I consider to be disordered behaviour.
The messaging also seems to revolve around tough love – as Autumn says in Week 3, ‘there’s plenty of time to buckle down and do this for yourself’ and telling people that they ‘won’t be deprived’ while assigning them low calorie budgets and one little yellow cup of ‘treats’ a week.
As a dietitian, none of that sits right with me.
Gut Health Protocol Week 4
Week 4 is all about being prepared for what comes after the 4 Week Gut Health Protocol.
Autumn mentions some of the other Beachbody programs, namely 80 Day Obsession, 21 Day Fix, and 9 Week Control Freak.
Are these named problematic to any of you like they are to me? Is it my imagination, or do all of these program names connote ‘fixing and controlling’ of our bodies and food?
I feel like there’s a ton of cross promotion to keep us in the Beachbody sphere. After Week 4, she gives us the option of continuing on the Gut Health Protocol, because ‘it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!’ and if you don’t, she advises to return to the Portion Fix plan, ‘because having a plan to follow is important for overall health and wellness and your goals.’
To actually stay on the Gut Health Protocol indefinitely would be restrictive and nonsensical.
For the re-introduction phase, Autumn tells us to add a new food back every three days. It’s not clear though: do we remove the food for one meal for those three days? Or every day?
She warns that if we feel any feelings of discomfort like gas, bloating, irregular bowel movements, itchy skin, mood changes, or any of the ‘other things we’ve talked about,’ it’s probably a food we have a sensitivity to, and should remove for the time being.
Fine, but a lot of those can be caused by things other than food intolerances. I’m not just going to remove a food if I get gas from it, or if my mood changes.
Those things happen to me every day of my life.
Does the Beachbody Gut Health Protocol actually help to figure out your food intolerances?
I feel like people associated with this program are spreading a lot of inaccurate information about what intolerances actually are.
I’m curious about why Beachbody didn’t address FODMAPs, which are a very common intolerance for people.
If you’re having significant gut issues, a proper elimination diet should be done under the guidance of an immunologist or dietitian who specializes in food allergy. Not an MLM coach.
And, I feel like the program is trying to be so many things at once, mixing an elimination diet with weight loss and gut health. You’re making so many changes, how can you be certain what’s affecting the way you feel?
All of this can be confound the results.
30 different plants per week is a good goal. Diversity of plants may help our gut microbiome thrive. This goal may be difficult for someone who doesn’t have access to a wide variety of foods, either because of finances, cooking experience, or location.
Focusing on sleep and stress levels is important. The program should have done more one these things, including recognizing that low-calorie diets can be a significant source of stress for people.
Some of the recipes that come with the program look delicious. I’m 100% trying the fermented blueberries.
This is a weight loss diet. Weight loss has nothing to do with gut health, and the fact that the 4 Week Gut Protocol is sold solely as a program to figure out your intolerances and help your gut, is misleading, in my opinion.
It’s also misleading to suggest in a roundabout way that gut health improves as we lose weight. We don’t know that yet…because science isn’t definitive on it.
Measuring food in little cups is diet behaviour. It’s also annoying AF, and unnecessary.
Vegan Shakeology tastes like garbage.
Most people probably don’t need digestive enzymes.
There’s a lot of cross-promotion to inspire brand loyalty. It’s a bit yucky.
The calorie budget I got was outrageously low. Period. Also: calorie budget = diet. Not lifestyle.
The reintroduction process is a bit confusing.
The food chewing thing is disordered. Highly concerning.
Above all else, if you have gut issues, looking to MLMs and MLM coaches for answers isn’t recommended. Although this program was purportedly developed with ‘doctors and dietitians,’ you’re getting information from Beachbody coaches with minimal to no training or experience in the science of gut health or immunology.