This study compared the effect of enteral nutrition as the sole therapy of active Crohn's disease with drug treatment. Patients with active Crohn's disease (Crohn's Disease Activity Index greater than 200) were randomized to receive either enteral nutrition with a liquid oligopeptide diet (n = 55) or a combination of 6-methylprednisolone, 48 mg daily, subsequently tapered, and sulfasalazine, 3 g daily (n = 52). The two groups were not different with respect to age, sex, body weight, location of disease, or treatment before the study. The severity of disease was similar at the beginning of the study in both groups [Crohn's Disease Activity Index (mean +/- SEM), 323 +/- 12 vs. 316 +/- 11]. Remission was defined as a decrease of the initial Crohn's Disease Activity Index by 40% or at least 100 points. Twenty-nine patients in the diet group and 41 patients in the drug group reached remission within 6 weeks of therapy (chi 2 test, P less than 0.01). The median elapsed time to remission was 30.7 days in the diet group compared with 8.2 days in the drug group (Mantel Cox, P less than 0.01). To determine whether one of these treatments was more beneficial for a subgroup of patients, the effectiveness of both treatments was analyzed separately in patients with very severe disease (initial Crohn's Disease Activity Index greater than 300) and less severe disease (initial Crohn's Disease Activity Index less than 300), and in patients with different disease location. However, no influence of initial disease activity or disease location on the effect of either treatment could be shown. These data show that enteral nutrition is less effective than a combination of 6-methylprednisolone and sulfasalazine in treating active Crohn's disease.