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Association between illness severity and timing of initial enteral feeding in critically ill patients: a retrospective observational study

Hsiu-Hua Huang12, Chien-Wei Hsu34, Shiu-Ping Kang5, Ming-Yi Liu16 and Sue-Joan Chang1*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Life Sciences, College of Bioscience and Biotechnology, National Cheng Kung University, No.1, University Rd., Tainan City 701, Taiwan

2 Department of Food and Nutrition, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, No.201, Sec. 2, Shipai Rd., Beitou Dist., Taipei City 11217, Taiwan

3 Medicine Department, School of Medicine, National Yang-Ming University, No.155, Sec.2, Linong Street, Beitou Dist., Taipei City 11221, Taiwan

4 Intensive Care Unit, Department of Medicine, Kaohsiung Veterans General Hospital, No. 386, Ta-Chung First Rd., Zouying Dist., Kaohsiung City 81362, Taiwan

5 Department of Nursing, Kaohsiung Veterans General Hospital, No. 386, Ta-Chung First Rd., Zouying Dist., Kaohsiung City 81362, Taiwan

6 Department of Nutrition, SinLau Hospital, No. 57, Sec. 1, Dongmen Rd., Tainan City 70142, Taiwan

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Citation and License

Nutrition Journal 2012, 11:30  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-30

Published: 3 May 2012



Early enteral nutrition is recommended in cases of critical illness. It is unclear whether this recommendation is of most benefit to extremely ill patients. We aim to determine the association between illness severity and commencement of enteral feeding.


One hundred and eight critically ill patients were grouped as “less severe” and “more severe” for this cross-sectional, retrospective observational study. The cut off value was based on Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation II score 20. Patients who received enteral feeding within 48 h of medical intensive care unit (ICU) admission were considered early feeding cases otherwise they were assessed as late feeding cases. Feeding complications (gastric retention/vomiting/diarrhea/gastrointestinal bleeding), length of ICU stay, length of hospital stay, ventilator-associated pneumonia, hospital mortality, nutritional intake, serum albumin, serum prealbumin, nitrogen balance (NB), and 24-h urinary urea nitrogen data were collected over 21 days.


There were no differences in measured outcomes between early and late feedings for less severely ill patients. Among more severely ill patients, however, the early feeding group showed improved serum albumin (p = 0.036) and prealbumin (p = 0.014) but worsened NB (p = 0.01), more feeding complications (p = 0.005), and prolonged ICU stays (p = 0.005) compared to their late feeding counterparts.


There is a significant association between severity of illness and timing of enteral feeding initiation. In more severe illness, early feeding was associated with improved nutritional outcomes, while late feeding was associated with reduced feeding complications and length of ICU stay. However, the feeding complications of more severely ill early feeders can be handled without significantly affecting nutritional intake and there is no eventual difference in length of hospital stay or mortality between groups. Consequently, early feeding shows to be a more beneficial nutritional intervention option than late feeding in patients with more severe illness.

Severity of illness; Early enteral feeding; Late enteral feeding; Critical illness