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What is an Elemental Diet?

By Kerrie Main
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are many types of ailments that affect the gastrointestinal tract, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other digestive diseases. People with these types of diseases often have nutritional problems because they have reduced appetites, diarrhea and insufficient calorie intake. Sufferers typically require more nutrients and vitamins than those without the disease, so the elemental diet was created. The elemental diet is a liquid diet composed of amino acids, sugars, fats, vitamins and minerals. These nutrients can be ingested in liquid form or in extreme forms, such as through a gastric feeding tube or intravenously.

Humans need vitamins, proteins, fats and calories to properly grow, heal and function. Normal food consumption requires food to be processed in the stomach and intestines, and the nutrients and vitamins are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine. The waste is then eliminated in the form of a bowel movement. People who have problems in the gastrointestinal tract have issues with the process and risk growth stunts, delayed sexual development and nutritional deficiencies. The elemental diet serves as a way to help people who cannot eat solid food gain these essential daily nutrients.

The elemental diet works for people with digestive issues because it comes in a digested form. This means that the person can intake all of the essential nutrients and vitamins without putting further stress on his or her digestive system. The nutritional makeup of a typical elemental diet is comprised of fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It is a medical diet and often requires the supervision of a health professional, because many people lose large amounts of weight and need to adjust their calorie intake.

There are many advantages of an elemental diet. One major benefit is that it gives the person’s gastrointestinal tract an opportunity to heal by allowing it to rest. This diet also provides most of the essential nutrients, so the person can function in daily life without fatigue. The duration of this diet is typically short term, and it doesn’t require major life changes. There typically are no exercise guidelines given to people on this diet.

The elemental diet has some disadvantages. The diet makeup does not include a protein source, because many people have allergic reactions. It does require medical supervision, and IVs and feeding tubes might cause complications. Some people experience drastic weight loss or muscle deterioration. Many people who enjoy food and the social aspects of dining express discontent with this type of diet as well.

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Discussion Comments
By pharmchick78 — On Nov 19, 2010

@firstviolin -- You're right, that is a major concern with elemental diets. However, most of the time a person is only put on an elemental diet as a last resort, or when their illness becomes so serious that normal digestion is simply unfeasible, or even painful.

However, most people who are put on a Crohn's diet or IBD diet are put on it by a doctor or nutritionist who is trained to make sure that they get all the nutrition that they need during the period that they're on the diet.

Also, many companies offer premixed elemental diet formulas, some of which come with protein powder mixed in, which can be a good option for people who need to be on an elemental diet for a longer period of time, and are not allergic to the types of protein found in the formula.

So although you do pose a very major concern that many people have when going on an elemental diet, for the most part, the doctors can offset that as long as the person is not on the diet for too long.

Hope that helps!

By FirstViolin — On Nov 19, 2010

So if the diet is so lacking in protein, and this is the only thing that the person ingests, then how does that person get the appropriate amount of protein in their diet?

Or do they just go without for the time that they're on the elemental diet, or Crohn's diet or whatever it is.

Can you clear this up for me?

By Planch — On Nov 19, 2010

My father in law had to go on an elemental diet for Crohns disease, so I really know what you're talking about.

Although I know that it was very helpful to him, and really speeded his recovery, it was also very hard for him too.

A lot of people on Crohns and colitis diets have a hard time adjusting to only having soft food all the time, not being able to choose what kinds of foods they eat, etc. It can also have some pretty big impacts on your bowel movements, which many people find uncomfortable.

Just one of those things where the cure is almost as bad as the disease, I guess.

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