Many people take dietary supplements as a way to ensure they are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals every day—particularly if they feel their diet may be lacking in certain nutrients.
If you take supplements regularly, it’s important to review the recommendations outlining the best times to take those particular items. One thing to consider? Whether you should be taking a supplement on an empty stomach or with food.
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The Supplement You Shouldn’t Take With Food
Most supplements are fine to take with food and, in many cases, that’s the preferred approach. However, a few supplements are absorbed better on an empty stomach. One that experts often single out is iron.
The concern here is not side effects, but reduced effectiveness. “Iron is a difficult mineral to absorb, and there are a variety of food components that can interfere with its absorption,” says Dr. Alexander Michels, Ph.D., Research Coordinator and Communications Officer at Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. “Some people might find that they just aren’t increasing their iron levels, and that is very important for people with iron-dependent anemia.”
Dr. Michels notes that one good way to boost iron absorption is to take it in conjunction with a simple vitamin C supplement. “That has helped a lot of people keep their iron levels up,” Dr. Michels says.
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Other Supplements That May Work Better Without Food
Some experts also suggest that water-soluble vitamins (the B vitamins and vitamin C) should be taken on an empty stomach, with just a small amount of water. “B-vitamins can be taken on an empty stomach with little side effects, if any, reported,” says Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., FACSM, Associate Professor at the Department of Kinesiology and Health, and Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nutrition at Rutgers University.
When Taking Supplements Without Food, See What Works Best for You
This is a situation where you need to see how your body reacts, adjusting to accommodate the approach that works best for your own digestive system, if necessary. Dr. Mahtab Jafari, Pharm.D and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Truth About Dietary Supplements: An Evidence-Based Guide to a Safe Medicine Cabinet, notes that some people experience GI-related issues when taking iron or B12 on an empty stomach, in which case, it’s better to take them with at least a small amount of food.
Most Supplements Should Be Taken With Food
Experts say that with most dietary supplements, taking them with food is typically recommended. “Most supplements should be taken with food to improve absorption and prevent upset stomach,” says Dr. Jafari. “It is best to take the fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins A, D, E and K) with food—especially food with fat content.”
It’s wise to consider the specific foods you are combining with whichever supplements you are taking. Dr. Malin echoes Dr. Michels’ advice, noting that vitamin C (or foods that are rich in that nutrient) work well with iron-based foods. “This is because vitamin C helps absorb iron,” Dr. Malin says.
Dr. Malin cites an issue that most people probably don’t consider—the heme levels of the food in their diet. “Heme is the main protein that supports our red blood cells, and red blood cells are the main way we transport oxygen around our body for energy production in the mitochondria of our cells,” Dr. Malin says. “Meat is a good source of iron that is heme-based, compared with green leafy vegetables that have iron of non-heme status, which isn’t as readily absorbed.”
Dr. Malin suggests that those who don’t eat a lot of meat during the week consider taking vitamin C with meals to help boost the absorption of iron with foods considered to have a non-heme makeup.
- Dr. Mahtab Jafari, Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of California, Irvine, and author of The Truth About Dietary Supplements: An Evidence-Based Guide to a Safe Medicine Cabinet
- Dr. Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., FACSM, Associate Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Health, and Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nutrition at Rutgers University
- Dr. Alexander Michels, Ph.D., Research Coordinator and Communications Officer, Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University