There are many popular diets – Zone, ketogenic, Mediterranean, DASH, Whole30 and more. But what if you’ve tried these programs and still have health problems that fail to go away, or stubborn pounds that refuse to come off? You may need to try the lesser-known, but very effective, elemental diet.

The main constituents of food are macronutrients — proteins, fats and carbohydrates. You need to digest these into their component parts to allow absorption. If your body can’t do this properly, various ailments may result, such as gas and bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, brain fog, autoimmune disease and food cravings tempting you to go off your diet. An elemental diet provides easily digested and absorbed nutrients, so your gastrointestinal system gets a rest, and many symptoms clear up in a few days or a few weeks.

Elemental diets are considered medical foods and should be used under the supervision of a health care provider. The products come as powders that are designed to be the only food eaten during a specified period, although you may consume half your calories from the elemental diet and half from well-tolerated foods while you are transitioning into or out of the full elemental diet.

Elemental diets were developed for the treatment of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). An excess of bacteria in the small intestine often occurs when there are too many carbohydrates in the diet, coupled with slow digestion. Carbohydrates ferment, a process that provides energy for the colon, but also produces carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane. These gasses remain trapped in the digestive tract leading to pain, bloating, flatulence and changes in stool consistency.

Instead of containing carbohydrates that languish in the intestine, an elemental diet formula provides monosaccharides, the end product of carbohydrate digestion. Since the carbohydrate is “pre-digested,” it can be absorbed through the intestinal wall before fermentation occurs.

Elemental diet formulas may seem like protein powders with which you are familiar. They differ in that they supply amino acids rather than intact proteins. It can be difficult to digest protein if you lack stomach acid or have a low level of digestive enzymes produced in your pancreas. People often notice gas and bloating when the protein source in their smoothie comes from legumes. An elemental diet bypasses this problem by supplying amino acids that don’t require further digestion.

If you have difficulty digesting fat, as evidenced by explosive diarrhea and pale or greasy stools, an elemental diet can help by supplying the benefits of fat without the fat itself. The formula contains fatty acids, which are the small and absorbable nutrients your body extracts from fat to provide calories and build cell membranes.

An elemental diet is meant to be followed for two to four weeks to treat SIBO and Crohn’s disease. Those without a serious diagnosis will benefit from following the diet for three to four days. Patients have used the half elemental diet for an entire  year to manage their symptoms and experienced better nutritional status and restoration of normal intestinal permeability.1

Talk to your health care provider to determine if an elemental diet can improve your health and digestion.

Dr. Needle is a licensed naturopathic doctor with Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 568.2598 or visit

Reference: 1) Takagi S, Utsunomiya K, Kuriyama S, et al. Effectiveness of an ‘half elemental diet’ as maintenance therapy for Crohn’s disease: A randomized-controlled trial. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2006 Nov 1; 24(9):1333-40.

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