The elemental diet is a medical protocol prescribed for certain gastrointestinal conditions. The diet consists of a liquid formula of complete nutrition broken down into its most elemental form. This “predigested” nutrition is easily absorbed in the upper digestive tract, allowing the lower digestive tract to rest and recover from illness or injury.
The elemental diet is a liquid meal replacement diet that offers a complete nutritional profile broken down into its most “elemental” form. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are broken down into amino acids, short-chain triglycerides and short-chain maltodextrins, combined with vitamins, minerals and electrolytes. These dietary “building blocks” are easily absorbed in the upper digestive tract, allowing the rest of your digestive system to rest and recover from illness or injury. Several prescription and non-prescription formulas are available on the market. They come in a liquid or powder form designed to be mixed with water. They can be taken orally or enterally (through a tube).
The elemental diet is usually medically prescribed for people with severe gastrointestinal diseases or recovering from gastrointestinal surgery, who need to rest their digestive systems to heal. Resting the digestive system can help calm inflammation flare-ups, prevent autoimmune reactions to food irritants and starve overgrown gut bacteria. Occasionally, the formula might be prescribed as a dietary supplement for people struggling to meet their nutritional needs. Under medical supervision, the duration and calorie intake of the diet is customized to the person. Guidance on the diet is recommended, but if you want to try it briefly to see if it helps your gut issues, this is generally safe.
Your healthcare provider may recommend the elemental diet if you have one of the following:
Ideally, you should consult with a qualified healthcare provider regarding your symptoms and what you might hope to gain from the diet. Based on your condition, your healthcare provider might recommend the diet for three to five days to manage acute symptoms, or for several weeks to give your digestive system a restorative rest and reboot. They'll also let you know how much of the formula to take to meet your body’s caloric needs. Healthcare providers often lean toward higher-calorie recommendations to make sure you won’t feel too hungry or depleted during the diet.
On the full elemental diet, you don’t eat any other foods. The point of the diet is to replace food and minimize digestive activity. Following the diet exactly allows your gut the rest it needs to heal. You may be allowed to drink tea without anything added.
Sometimes healthcare providers recommend a “half-elemental diet” for people who need a secondary source of nutrition or who are transitioning into or out of the full diet. In this case, the elemental formulas provide half of your calories, and the other half come from food.
There are some formulas specifically marketed for a half-elemental diet, which may not be completely elemental — for example, they may contain MCT oil or whey. These are not completely broken-down sources of protein or fat, but they are generally easy to digest and make the half-diet easier to follow.
This diet is very restrictive, and it can be challenging. To stick to the diet successfully, healthcare providers recommend that you:
During the diet, you may experience symptoms that make you wonder if it’s actually helping your condition or making it worse. Medical guidance can help you sort through this. Symptoms may include:
It’s important to reintroduce foods gradually as your digestive system is ramping back up again. Healthcare providers typically recommend following a half-elemental diet or a low-FODMAP diet during the transition. They may also recommend probiotics to re-populate your gut with beneficial flora, and prokinetic agents to stimulate your bowels to begin moving more regularly again. As you return to your more regular diet, pay attention to the way different foods affect your digestive system. If they cause too much distress, back off a bit and try again later.
The primary benefits of the diet are:
Keep in touch with your healthcare provider regularly during the diet and let them know how you’re doing. They’ll let you know if they think it might be helpful or harmful to adjust your protocol.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The elemental diet has been used in clinical settings for decades, but recently has become more popular as an outpatient protocol. It has a well-documented success rate in relieving symptoms of SIBO and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Other related conditions have not been as thoroughly studied, but theoretically and anecdotally, they may benefit just as much. If you have a chronic inflammatory condition, your healthcare provider may suggest the elemental diet as an intervention. With professional guidance, the temporary diet is safe for most people to try. It might be challenging, but the results might be worth it.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/18/2021.
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