Three flavors of an elemental smoothie swirl down into an open container

The Elemental Diet and Crohn’s Disease

This month, I'm struggling with Crohn's symptoms and have been relying on elemental drinks when things get difficult. I thought it might be useful for me to share a guide to how the elemental diet works and why it may be useful for those of us with IBD.

What is the elemental diet?

An elemental diet is a diet where nutrition is only delivered via liquid formulas or, in more severe circumstances of malnutrition, a feed tube or IV. When patients struggle to get their flare under control, many patients may be temporarily prescribed an elemental diet to try by a dietitian.

This is usually done for a short period of time (around 6 weeks but it may vary) with the patient then gradually introducing food often by starting a low-residue diet (limiting fiber and fat) to ease themselves into the diet.

Can it help Crohn's and UC?

Yes, there is some evidence it can help IBD. Since you essentially are only consuming nutrition in liquid form, the gut does not have to digest solid food, meaning it can allow the digestive system a chance to rest. One study found 85% of participants taking liquid elemental drinks were in remission without taking steroids at week 6 of the study.1

Are there any drawbacks of the elemental diet for IBD?

Yes, one is that is obviously hard to stick to – this is why it is more readily prescribed with children than it is with adults. It can also be expensive to prescribe if the patient is taking it for a long period of time.

It may be difficult for patients to transition from the elemental diet back to normal food without risking a flare, too. Lots (but not all) of elemental drinks contain dairy which may be an issue for patients who find it a trigger or are lactose intolerant.

My experience with an elemental diet and Crohn's

I haven't been prescribed an elemental diet but I have tried elemental drinks myself. After speaking to a private dietitian, she suggested I tried elemental drinks on an occasional basis – just if I could sense a flare-up was coming or was going somewhere that I didn't want to risk feeling unwell.

I managed to find a vegan elemental drink which was great as I personally can't eat dairy (which is what had stopped me trying it in the past) and ordered some.

I found the taste great. They just tasted like strawberry milkshakes, really, and they kept me full for a few hours. I swapped my breakfast for 1 of these a few times a week and find it definitely reduces my stomach pain or toilet trips first thing which is great when I have a busy day.

However, I found it often introduced these symptoms again at lunchtime when I then had a normal meal. So I think that to notice a real impact I'd need to take them purely by themselves for a long period of time. It is definitely worth having on hand if you know you may overdo it or be in a situation that could risk a flare.

Have you tried elemental drinks?

I'd love to know your experiences with elemental drinks. Have you tried them and do they help? Comment below.

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