Fat malabsorption in critical illness

Nutr Clin Pract. 2024 Apr:39 Suppl 1:S29-S34. doi: 10.1002/ncp.11121.


Malnutrition in critical illness is common and is associated with significant increases in adverse outcomes. A hypermetabolic state and underfeeding both contribute to the incidence of malnutrition. Malabsorption caused by critical illness is also an important contributor to the development of malnutrition. The early provision of enteral nutrition is associated with improved outcomes. Strategies for nutrition therapy must be informed by the alterations in absorption of macronutrients present in these patients. The following review examines alterations in fat metabolism during critical illness, and its consequences to overall nutrition status. Critical illness, as well as the sequalae of common medical interventions, may lead to alterations in the mechanical and chemical processes by which fat is digested and absorbed. Mechanical alterations include delayed gastric emptying and changes to the normal gut transit time. Pharmacologic interventions aimed at reducing these impacts may themselves, negatively affect efficient fat absorption. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency can also occur in critical illness and may be underappreciated as a cause of fat malabsorption. Dysfunction of the gut lymphatics has been proposed as a contributing factor to fat malabsorption, and additional work is needed to better describe and quantify those effects. Achieving optimal outcomes for nutrition therapy requires recognition of these alterations in fat digestion.

Keywords: critical care; fat malabsorption; fat metabolism; nutrition; pancreatic insufficiency.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Illness* / therapy
  • Enteral Nutrition / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Malnutrition* / etiology
  • Nutritional Status
  • Nutritional Support / adverse effects