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The term clear liquid diet may call to mind images (or terrible memories) of the cabbage soup diet.
While it may sound like a crash diet cousin, a clear liquid diet is actually a tool used by healthcare providers to help their patients.
You may be instructed to follow this diet for a short time before or after surgery. It can also be used to manage gastrointestinal issues. It’s not meant as a long-term diet since it doesn’t provide enough calories or nutrients if used for longer than five days.
So, what exactly is a clear liquid diet? Think of it as a transparent diet. People on it consume more than just colorless, clear liquids like water or broth.
Transparent food and drinks with color are also allowed, such as coffee, tea, juice without pulp, sports drinks, ice pops, and gelatin snacks (Oates, 2021).
What are clear liquid diets used to treat?
Clear liquid diets can be used before or after surgery to ease your digestive system’s workload.
A healthcare provider may have you follow a clear liquid diet before endoscopic procedures (like a colonoscopy) to reduce residue in your bowels. Doing so helps get a better picture of your digestive tract to spot any problems.
Restricted eating is necessary to avoid complications after certain surgeries like gastric bypass or colon operations.
The goal is to minimize the amount of work your digestive system needs to do to give it a rest. The amount of time you’ll spend on this diet and how quickly you’ll progress to eating soft and then solid foods depends on your personal situation.
The clear liquid diet isn’t just for people who have undergone digestive operations. It can also be used for a day or two following any surgery that involves general anesthesia.
That’s because general anesthesia (when they put you to sleep during an operation) affects your ability to swallow. A short-term clear liquid diet can reduce the risk of choking until a healthcare professional can assess how well you’re swallowing (Oates, 2021).
How to stop yo-yo dieting
A clear liquid diet offers the significant advantage of keeping you hydrated if you can’t stomach regular food and have persistent vomiting or diarrhea (Oates, 2021).
Despite that, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest people return to a regular diet as soon as possible following a bout of diarrhea or vomiting. This is because a regular balanced diet provides essential nutrients restrictive ones like the clear liquid or BRAT diet do not (AAP, 1996).
What you can eat and drink on a clear liquid diet
You can eat any transparent, room temperature liquid (or soft solids like Jell-O). Some examples of what you can consume on the clear liquid diet include (Oates, 2021):
- Plain water
- Carbonated beverages like sodas and seltzer
- Black coffee
- Tea without milk or cream
- Sports drinks like Gatorade
- Fruit juice without pulp (cranberry juice, apple juice, grape juice)
- Oral hydration solutions with electrolytes like Pedialyte
- Clear ice pops or popsicles
- Ice chips
- Clear broth (bouillon or consomme)
- Plain gelatin like Jell-O
- Clear hard candies
Still, the specifics of a clear liquid diet can be confusing. Even though pulp-free fruit juice is okay to drink, things like pulp-free orange or grapefruit juice are not okay since they’re not transparent. The same applies to milk.
Some healthcare providers suggest you avoid foods with red or orange food coloring if you’re having an endoscopy. Food dyes can look like blood, making it difficult to properly assess your digestive system during the procedure (Oates, 2021).
Is a clear liquid diet safe if I have diabetes?
Patients with diabetes need extra monitoring while on a clear liquid diet. Unless under the guidance of a medical professional, people with diabetes should not use this diet.
Most of the food and drinks permitted on a clear liquid diet contain simple sugars. For people with diabetes, this can alter blood sugar levels and insulin needs, leading to serious consequences (Oates, 2021).
Diabetes diet: improving blood sugar with food
Clear liquid diets and weight loss
You should not use a clear liquid diet to lose weight. Clear liquid diets do not provide adequate calories or nutrition for a safe or effective long-term diet. They also offer little to no protein or fat––two macronutrients critical for your body to function (Oates, 2021).
Using a clear liquid diet for too long may cause nutritional deficiencies. If you’re struggling with managing your weight, consult a healthcare professional or dietitian who can offer you a range of different options.
The clear liquid diet is meant to be a short-term tool used for certain medical conditions and procedures. Your healthcare provider may direct you to follow one ahead of a colonoscopy to get clearer test results, as well as after surgery while any anesthesia wears off.
A clear liquid diet may also be used temporarily to help keep you hydrated if you’ve had an upset stomach.
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Practice parameter: the management of acute gastroenteritis in young children. American Academy of Pediatrics, Provisional Committee on Quality Improvement, Subcommittee on Acute Gastroenteritis. (1996). Pediatrics, 97(3), 424–435. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8604285/
- Hancock, S., Cresci, G., & Martindale, R. (2002). The clear liquid diet: When is it appropriate? Current Gastroenterology Reports, 4(4), 324–331. doi:10.1007/s11894-002-0083-2. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11894-002-0083-2
- Oates, J. R. & Sharma, S. (2021, June 18). Clear Liquid Diet. StatPearls Publishing. Treasure Island, FL. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538500/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.