An elemental diet involves only consuming liquids or powders mixed with water — no whole foods. For people living with specific medical conditions or severe digestive issues, a doctor may recommend an elemental diet.
An elemental diet comprises easily digestible formulas that come in liquid or powder form and provide all the nutrients your body needs.
It’s intended for those who have severe digestive issues and is usually followed under the supervision of a trained medical team.
Some people may attempt to follow an elemental diet to lose weight, despite the lack of evidence supporting its use for reasons other than treating specific medical conditions.
This article explains what an elemental diet is and reviews its potential benefits, downsides, and effectiveness for weight loss.
An elemental diet consists of nutritionally complete formulas in a “pre-digested” form. These formulas come in liquid form or powders that are meant to be mixed with water and consumed.
Elemental formulas contain protein, fat, and carbs that have already been broken down into their building blocks — amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars. They also contain vitamins and minerals.
Since nutrients in this form are easily absorbed, an elemental diet allows your digestive tract to rest without jeopardizing your nutritional intake.
Most elemental formulas contain more carbs and protein than fat, as fat can be difficult to digest.
An elemental diet is often prescribed to people who have severe digestive issues. It has been shown to help manage symptoms of several diseases, including:
- Crohn’s disease:This is a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Elemental diets have been used for decades in the treatment of Crohn’s disease, a condition that causes chronic inflammation of your digestive tract, stomach pain, malabsorption, and several other issues.
- Pancreatitis: An inflammation of the pancreas. an elemental diet may help manage pain associated with chronic pancreatitis.
Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE):This is an inflammatory disease damaging the esophagus. A small study of 21 adults with EoE found that 88%of participants no longer experienced symptoms of the condition after four weeks on an elemental diet, which was only 15 people. That said, the study found that the diet also led to a significant decrease in inflammation.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): elemental diets
may help treatsmall intestinal bacterial growth (SIBO), which is marked by bloating, gas, and stomach pain.
It can also benefit those who struggle to meet their nutrient needs, such as people with cancer or anorexia nervosa.
An elemental diet consists of nutritionally complete, easily digestible formulas. It is usually used to manage digestive diseases and other medical issues, but some people may try it for weight loss.
Those who follow an elemental diet typically consume only elemental formulas and no solid food. Water and plain tea are usually the only other permitted liquids.
Elemental formulas come in liquid or powder form and can be administered via a feeding tube or mixed with water and consumed as a drink.
Healthcare professionals often recommend drinking elemental formulas slowly to prevent cramping and stomach discomfort. They can also give the appropriate amount to administer and the rate of administration if you’re using a feeding tube.
An elemental diet is almost always supervised by a registered dietitian and medical doctor who recommends the type and amount of formula based on each person’s calorie and nutrient needs.
How long can you stay on an elemental diet?
Some people rely on elemental formulas until their symptoms improve. The duration of time you would stay on the elemental diet generally depends on the condition being treated.
That said, it is most commonly a short-term diet of anywhere from 4-6 weeks.
In some cases, such as after bowel removal, you would need to follow an elemental diet indefinitely,
People who follow an elemental diet typically rely on elemental formulas for all their nutritional needs and do not eat solid food. They are usually supervised by a medical team and follow the diet until their symptoms improve.
Some people may be drawn to an elemental diet to help them lose weight, but this diet isn’t intended for this purpose. In fact, doctors will usually recommend an elemental diet to prevent weight loss or to maintain weight.
Some aspects of an elemental diet may aid weight loss, but there is no scientific research on this specific topic.
Since an elemental diet typically consists of nutritionally complete formulas and no other foods, it’s easy to follow and doesn’t require any meal preparation.
Theoretically, you could drink elemental formulas and avoid all solid foods and still meet your nutrient needs.
Single-serve elemental formula packets are available at most drug stores and make it easy to control your calorie intake.
However, following an elemental diet is not recommended without the supervision of a physician or trained healthcare professional.
Overall, elemental formulas are typically designed for those with specific medical conditions. Therefore, they’re not appropriate for weight loss.
It’s easy to meet your nutrient needs and control the calories you consume on an elemental diet. However, elemental formulas are not intended for weight loss nor recommended without the supervision of a healthcare professional.
There are several downsides to following an elemental diet for weight loss.
- Needs medical supervision: It should only be followed under the supervision of a healthcare professional and is not recommended for those who do not have a specific medical condition.
- Hard to follow: It can be difficult to follow long term, as it consists solely of elemental formulas and typically excludes solid foods.
- Can affect mood and stamina: You may experience fatigue and irritability initially due to the lack of food choices.
- Expensive: Elemental formulas can cost over $10 per packet and be extremely expensive for everyday use, especially if you do not have a prescription or insurance coverage. For example, you may need four or more single-serve packets (300 calories each) per day to meet your calorie needs, which could cost more than $40. Some states require insurance companies to cover the cost of elemental formulas for treating certain conditions, but others do not.
- May negatively affect blood sugar: Elemental formulas are typically very low in fat and high in carbs, which can spike your blood sugar. Therefore, an elemental diet
may leadto blood sugar dysregulation in people with blood sugar control issues, such as type 2 diabetes.
- Limits fat too much: Elemental formulas are relatively low in fat compared with protein and carbs. If you are following an elemental diet for extended periods without consuming supplemental fat, you may not be meeting your daily fat intake needs.
- May cause oral problems: When you’re on an elemental diet, you are not chewing and swallowing, which normally keeps the mouth muscles strong and
can also benefitsatiety and satisfaction with food. Staying on this diet long-term can causeoral complications.
Following an elemental diet for weight loss is unnecessarily restrictive and expensive and may lead to fatigue and blood sugar spikes.
Under the supervision of a doctor and registered dietitian, an elemental diet may help treat severe digestive issues.
If you are experiencing one of the conditions that an elemental diet may help improve, such as Crohn’s disease or SIBO, speak with your healthcare professional about implementing the diet.
However, using an elemental diet for purposes other than treating these specific health conditions is not recommended.
Specifically, following an elemental diet to lose weight would be highly restrictive, expensive, and unnecessary for an otherwise healthy person. There is also no research to support the use of this diet for weight loss.
An elemental diet can help treat severe digestive issues, but it’s likely unnecessary and overly restrictive for an otherwise healthy adult who is trying to lose weight.
An elemental diet consists of easily digestible liquid formulas that provide all the nutrients your body needs.
It’s typically used under medical supervision to treat severe digestive issues.
While you could theoretically follow an elemental diet to try to lose weight, this is not recommended.
Eating a balanced diet based on whole foods is a better way to lose weight and reach your goals.