How the Elemental Diet Works

Purpose, Side Effects, and How to Follow It

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The elemental diet is a medical liquid diet used to help people recover from certain health problems, like Crohn's disease or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

The diet gets its name from the fact that nutrients are introduced into the body in as close to their elemental form as possible. This makes it easier to digest and absorb nutrients when recovering from specific conditions.

Several commercial formulations are available as options for people who need to be on the elemental diet. In this article, you'll learn how the elemental diet works, when and why it's used, and potential side effects.

man drinking from cup in hospital

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An elemental diet allows for the absorption of nutrients in the most easily digestible form. It's mainly used by individuals with a serious digestive condition.

The theory is to make it easier for all nutrients to be absorbed within the beginning of the small intestine. This allows the large intestine to rest.

Conditions and Uses

An elemental diet is rarely used. When used, it's only valid for a very restricted population.

The elemental diet may be indicated for people with the following conditions:

How the Elemental Diet Works

Elemental diet formulations may be taken in the form of a liquid drink or administered through a feeding tube.

The amount of liquid will be slowly increased over the first few days. This helps reduce uncomfortable side effects like diarrhea or abdominal pain.

When the diet is used to help rest the gastrointestinal tract, no other foods or liquids besides water are allowed. An exception may be made for plain tea or coffee.

In other cases, the diet may be used as a dietary supplement.

Because the elemental diet contains a full range of nutrients, it may be possible for a person to subsist on the diet for a long time. However, the elemental diet should never be used without medical supervision.

Elemental Formula Ingredients

Elemental diet liquids contain nutrients in an easily digestible form. Typical formulations include:

  • Essential and non-essential amino acids
  • Glucose (an easily digested carbohydrate)
  • Vitamins (fat- and water-soluble)
  • Minerals
  • Electrolytes
  • Small amounts of fat (less than 1%)

Elemental Diet Side Effects

The most common problem with the elemental diet is that the taste can be hard to tolerate, even with flavoring agents.

Some patients report side effects like:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

These side effects are especially likely to occur if too much is ingested too quickly.

Patients with diabetes may experience high blood sugar levels. The elemental diet may also be inappropriate for a person who has kidney disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long can you stay on elemental diet?

    It depends on your condition and your symptoms.

    Some people find relief after being on the diet for a few days. Others may need to be on the elemental diet for two to three weeks, sometimes even 12 weeks, to rest their digestive tract.

    Your healthcare provider will recommend what's right for you.

  • How do I reintroduce food after the elemental diet?

    Reintroduce food slowly and gradually. Start with foods you don't typically have negative reactions to.

    Reintroduction is usually done in stages but depends on the condition you were on the elemental diet for.

    For example, if you have eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), there are four stages of reintroduction that start with foods least likely to cause EoE.

  • Does SIBO return after the elemental diet?

    It could.

    In one study, 85% of SIBO patients experienced symptom relief after being on an elemental diet for three weeks. After one month, 83% of the patients who followed up still had improved symptoms.

    However, about 44% of people with SIBO have a relapse within nine months of their first treatment.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Durchschein F, Petritsch W, Hammer HF. Diet therapy for inflammatory bowel diseases: The established and the new. World J Gastroenterol. 2016;22(7):2179–2194. doi:10.3748/wjg.v22.i7.2179

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  8. UC Irvine School of Medicine: Children's Health Orange County. Elemental diet.

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By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.