An elemental diet is a liquid-only medical diet that consists of an easy-to-digest formula that comes as liquid or powder. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are broken down into short-chain sugars, amino acids, and short-chain triglycerides. These dietary “building blocks” are combined with electrolytes, vitamins, and minerals. The upper digestive tract easily absorbs this “pre-digested” form of food that allows the rest of your digestive system to rest and heal from injury or illness. The Elemental diet aims to replace food and minimize digestive activity.
It is used for people with severe digestive problems and should be performed under the healthcare provider’s supervision. The Elemental diet is beneficial for people with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), Crohn’s disease, inflammatory diseases, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and other conditions affecting the digestive tract. In addition, the Elemental diet can be prescribed for people who have had surgery on the digestive tract or intestine or those who struggle to meet their nutrient needs due to illnesses like cancer or anorexia nervosa.
The Elemental diet consists of easily digestible formulas coming in powder or liquid form. These formulas provide the body with all the nutrients it needs. This diet typically allows only the intake of elemental formulas, with no solid foods permitted. Water and plain tea are the only other liquids that are allowed.
Elemental formulas can be administered via intravenous therapy or feeding tube, as well as mixed with water and consumed as a drink. A number of commercially prepared elemental formulas are designed to provide sufficient calories and adequate nutrients to support health. Such formulas are available by prescription or as over-the-counter products.
Based on your health condition, your physician will recommend the time period you should follow the Elemental diet and the amount of formula you need daily to meet your body’s calorie and nutrient needs. For example, you might be prescribed this diet for three to five days to manage acute symptoms, or for several weeks to restore and reboot your digestive system. Also, healthcare providers typically prefer higher-calorie recommendations to ensure that you will not feel too hungry.
The Elemental diet typically lasts for about 2 to 6 weeks, allowing healing or other treatment for the digestive tract, depending on the health condition. Then you will gradually reintroduce foods into your diet. However, healthcare providers recommend following a semi-elemental diet during the transition period. The semi-elemental diet implies eating half normal foods and half elemental formulas.
The Elemental diet should only be followed under the supervision of a doctor and should not be followed by those who do not have any specific medical conditions.
How to avoid possible nutritional deficiencies
There are no possible nutritional deficiencies risks in the Elemental diet since you receive all nutrients your body needs but in liquid form. The powder and liquid formulas consist of the macronutrients combined with vitamins and minerals.
Tips on improving dieting experience
The Elemental diet is highly restrictive, making it harder to follow this diet. Here are some tips on how to ease your dieting experience:
- Sip elemental formula slowly to prevent nausea and drink an adequate amount of water between your “meals”.
- Add ice cubes to keep your liquid formula cold and smoothie-like while drinking it. Cold drinks taste better.
- Keep your formula in a temperature-controlled thermos to make it portable so you will not get hungry while you are out and about.
- Keep yourself entertained with fun, food-free activities, and good company.
- Consider visiting a doctor if you plan to complete a 2-3 week Elemental diet.
The Elemental diet is highly restrictive and may be challenging to follow. Typically, people follow this diet under medical supervision. Consuming easily digestible elemental formulas is considered an effective therapy for a wide variety of digestive tract conditions. However, it is not recommended to follow the Elemental diet to lose weight. Instead, eating a balanced diet is a healthier way to reach your weight loss goals.
You can also consider a Mediterranean or Nordic diet if you want to improve your health.