How the Elemental Diet Works

man drinking from cup in hospital
David Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The elemental diet is a liquid diet used predominantly to help people to recover from certain health problems. The diet gets its name from the fact that nutrients are introduced into the body in as close to their elemental form as possible. There are several commercial formulations available as options for people who need to be on the diet.

Why Would an Elemental Diet Be Used?

An elemental diet allows for the absorption of nutrients in the most easily digestible form. Therefore, it is predominantly used by individuals who have severe digestive illness. It is thought that all nutrients are absorbed within the beginning of the small intestine, thus allowing the large intestine to "rest." 

When the Diet Would Be Used

An elemental diet is rarely used. When they are used it is only valid for a very restricted population, typically those who have had surgery involving the digestive tract, or rarely, those with unusual cases of malabsorption and short-gut syndrome. 

In addition to use with people who have severe digestive illness, there has been some more recent research focus on the use of the diet for people who have Crohn's disease, refractory celiac disease, and SIBO.

How the Diet Is Used

Elemental diet formulations may be taken in the body through the form of a liquid drink or may be administered through a feeding tube. The amount of liquid will be slowly increased over the first few days to reduce unwanted side effects such as diarrhea or abdominal pain.

When the diet is being used to help to rest the gastrointestinal tract, no other foods or liquids other than water are allowed, although an exception may be made for plain tea or coffee. In other cases, the diet may be used as a dietary supplement.

Because the diet contains a full range of nutrients, it is theorized that a person could subsist on the diet for a long time. However, the elemental diet should never be used without medical supervision.

What's In an Elemental Diet Formula?

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 amount of fat (less than 1%)

Possible Side Effects

The most common problem with elemental diet is the fact that the taste can be quite difficult to tolerate, even with the use of flavoring agents. Some patients report abdominal pain, diarrhea , and nausea, particularly if too much is ingested too quickly. Patients who have diabetes may experience high blood sugar levels. The elemental diet may also be inappropriate for a person who has kidney disease.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Pimental, M. "A New IBS Solution" Health Point Press 2006.

  • Pimentel, M., "A 14-Day Elemental Diet Is Highly Effective in Normalizing the Lactulose Breath Test" 2004 49:73-77. Digestive Diseases and Sciences.

  • Russell, R. "Elemental Diets" Gut 1975 16:68-79.