An elemental diet is comprised of 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 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.
- Crohn’s disease: This inflammatory bowel disease is marked by abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and vomiting.
- Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE): EoE is an inflammatory disease that damages your esophagus and leads to difficulty swallowing, chest pain, and heartburn.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): SIBO is characterized by excessive bacteria in your small intestine, which leads to bloating, gas, and stomach pain.
Additionally, healthcare providers may prescribe elemental diets for people who have undergone surgeries of the digestive tract or intestines, as well as those who struggle to meet their nutrient needs, such as people with cancer or anorexia nervosa.
Some people may be drawn to an elemental diet to help them lose weight, but it’s not intended for this purpose.
Summary 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 intravenous therapy, or mixed with water and consumed as a drink.
Healthcare providers often recommend drinking elemental formulas at a slow pace to prevent cramping and stomach discomfort.
An elemental diet is almost always supervised by a registered dietitian and medical doctor who recommend the type and amount of formula based on each person’s calorie and nutrient needs.
In most cases, a person receives all of their nutrition from elemental formulas, but some people may only get a portion of their daily needs from formulas and the rest from solid foods. These instances are referred to as half- or semi-elemental diets (5).
Some people, such as those who have had part of their bowel removed, follow an elemental diet indefinitely, while others only rely on elemental formulas until their symptoms improve.
An elemental diet is not typically recommended for weight loss but could theoretically be used for this purpose.
Summary 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 aspects of an elemental diet may aid weight loss, but there is no scientific research on this specific topic.
Studies in people with conditions that are treated with an elemental diet have shown that it can lead to significant weight loss. However, this is not considered a beneficial or intended outcome of the diet (6).
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 provider.
Overall, elemental formulas are typically designed for those with specific medical conditions. Therefore, they’re not appropriate for weight loss.
Summary It’s easy to meet your nutrient needs and control the number of calories you consume on an elemental diet. However, elemental formulas are not intended for weight loss nor recommended without the supervision of a healthcare provider.
Studies show that elemental diets can help manage symptoms of inflammatory diseases and conditions that affect your digestive tract.
This is because the macronutrients — protein, fats, and carbs — in elemental formulas are already broken down, which allows them to be rapidly absorbed by your small intestine. In turn, your bowel can rest.
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 (2, 7, 8).
One study in 21 adults with EoE found that 88% of participants no longer experienced symptoms of the condition after 4 weeks on an elemental diet. The diet also led to a significant decrease in inflammation (9).
Since the nutrients provided by an elemental diet are rapidly absorbed, they may not be available long enough to feed your intestinal bacteria, thus starving them and preventing overgrowth (4).
A study in 93 adults with SIBO found that following an elemental diet for 21 days led to normal lactulose breath tests in 85% of participants. Abnormal lactulose breath tests are a marker of SIBO (10).
What’s more, over half of those who had a normal breath test experienced symptom improvement (10).
Summary An elemental diet can help manage diseases that affect the digestive tract, including Crohn’s disease, eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
There are several downsides to following an elemental diet for weight loss.
For one, it should only be followed under the supervision of a healthcare provider and is not recommended for those who do not have a specific medical condition.
Additionally, an elemental diet can be very difficult to follow long term, as it consists solely of elemental formulas and typically excludes solid foods.
People following an elemental diet may experience fatigue and irritability in the initial stages due to the lack of food choices.
Furthermore, 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 4 or more single-serve packets (300 calories each) per day to meet your calorie needs, which could cost more than $40.
Elemental formulas are typically very low in fat and high in carbs, which can spike your blood sugar. Therefore, an elemental diet may lead to blood sugar dysregulation in people with blood sugar control issues, such as type 2 diabetes (13).
Finally, 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.
Summary 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 provider 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.
Instead, try eating a balanced diet with a variety of nutritious foods. It can be an effective way to lose weight without such extreme restrictions.
Summary 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.