Enteral vs. Parenteral Nutrition

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Do you use enteral nutrition? Probably yes. Have you ever used parenteral nutrition? Not as likely. Confused as to what either one of them is? This lesson defines and compares the two.

Ways to Get Nutrition

More than likely, you get your nutrients by chewing them with your mouth or by simply swallowing them, as per liquids. But did you know there's another way you can get nutrition? In fact, you don't even have to use your mouth in order to do so. You don't even need to use your digestive system! Crazy but true.

Enteral Vs. Parenteral Nutrition

See, the way we normally eat ties into the concept of enteral nutrition. This refers to a method of obtaining nutrients via any method of feeding that relies on the digestive system. This is the system that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Enteral is a word that refers to something that occurs by way of the digestive system. While entero- literally means intestines, in this case, it implies the entire digestive system.

Simple everyday eating and drinking via your mouth is a form of enteral nutrition. When a feeding tube is inserted through a patient's nose or into a patient's esophagus, stomach, or even the intestines, this is also a form of enteral nutrition.

Enteral nutrition relies on the digestive tract: the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines.
Digestive system

The alternative to enteral nutrition is parenteral nutrition. This refers to the delivery of nutrients via a vein. The word comes from enteral, which we discussed, and par-, which means aside or apart from. So, we are delivering nutrition in a way that is apart from the digestive system.

Using Enteral Nutrition

So we already know that we use enteral nutrition when we chew and swallow food, but when would we use other forms of enteral nutrition, like a feeding tube. One example may be a person who recently had a stroke and is having difficulty swallowing. Maybe another person just had a bad case of oral cancer removed from their mouth and they find it difficult or way too painful to eat via their mouth. In such instances, a tube may be used to feed the person.

Why? Well, if the person has difficulty chewing and swallowing their food for any reason, they could aspirate (inhale) it into their respiratory system. This means they can die as a result of an obstruction (they choke) since they can't breathe any air in. Or, they may die as a result of the biochemical damage the food or liquid causes to the lungs. To avoid this, a temporary feeding tube can be placed as the person heals or is rehabilitated for their condition.

Using Parenteral Nutrition

So when would we use parenteral nutrition? Well, examples of this include serious gastrointestinal disorders, such as ulcerative colitis, which make it painful or difficult to obtain nutrients via the gastrointestinal tract. In these cases, malnutrition may occur unless parenteral nutrition is used. Another example is some sort of obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract. If the partial or total obstruction cannot (or does not need to) be quickly addressed via emergency surgery, then the person may be fed via a vein.

In general, enteral nutrition is preferred over parenteral nutrition when both options are on the table. Enteral nutrition is chosen over parental for the following reasons:

  • less expensive
  • reduces the length of a hospital stay
  • minimizes the chances of causing an infection
  • returns the gut to a healthy functional state more quickly

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