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Enteral Nutrition: Oral Supplements and Tube Feeding Explained

We all need food to function – whether it’s moving our muscles, signaling our brain, or defending our immune system, the food we eat helps fuel every process in our body. But for many of us, getting enough of the nutrition we need can be more complicated than what we put on our plates. If you or your loved one have struggled to eat or absorb enough nutrients from your usual diet alone, your doctor may recommend “enteral nutrition.” 

Enteral nutrition refers to any nutrient rich food or supplemental formula that’s fed into your gastrointestinal (GI) or “enteral” tract. This includes oral supplements that you consume by mouth, or liquid nutrition provided through a feeding tube .  Enteral nutrition is the safety net you need to give you the energy, strength and overall protection to stay healthy and feel your best. 

 

Who Needs Enteral Nutrition?

People of all ages and stages use enteral nutrition, and for a wide variety of reasons:

  • Poor appetite
  • Difficulty or inability to chew and swallow
  • Surgery that interferes with eating or digestion
  • Illness that impairs nutrient digestion or absorption
  • High nutrient needs not easily met through meals and snacks alone

Some people can meet their needs through oral supplements. But for those who can’t eat or drink enough by mouth, tube feedings are essential. It’s estimated that more than 400,000 people in the U.S., including infants, children and adults, use feeding tubes at home. A feeding tube may only be needed for a few months, or it may be a long-term or lifetime tool. 

 

Why is Nutrition So Important?

Good nutrition helps to both support overall wellness and disease prevention as well as promote healing and recovery after illness. In fact, people living with or recovering from a disease or physical trauma often have higher calorie or nutrient needs than healthy people. For example, someone who is recovering from surgery may have increased protein needs. And a sick child may need more nutrition to support both healing as well as growth and development.  

Tube feeding formulas are considered “complete nutrition.” That’s because they contain all essential nutrients – carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and water – to help prevent deficiencies, support growth and address any specialized nutrition needs.  

 

What Type of Enteral Nutrition is Right for Me?

Different tube feeding formulas provide different advantages, and your healthcare provider can help you determine what type of formula makes the most sense for you:

  • Standard 
  • Elemental or semi-elemental
  • Blenderized with real food ingredients
  • Home-prepared 
  • Specialized 

For example, an elemental tube feeding formula may work best if you have a GI disorder, like short bowel syndrome, since elemental formulas are made with ingredients that are easier for some to digest and absorb. Meanwhile, someone with diabetes or kidney disease may require a specialized formula.

Others prefer tube feeding with real food ingredients. Real food tube feeding formulas are made from real food ingredients like chicken, vegetables and fruit, along with added vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. Tube feeding with real food ingredients may be beneficial for children and adults who have difficulty tolerating a standard formula, or for those using tube feedings long-term. A real food formula may offer psychological benefits, too. Because they’re made from real foods, this type of tube feeding may help you participate in family meals because you are enjoying some of the same foods.

From standard and elemental tube feeding formulas to tube feeding with real food ingredients, there are lots of options available. Talk to your healthcare team to learn what tube feeding approach is the best option for you or your loved one. 

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