10 Vitamins (and Supplements) that Should Always Be Taken with Food
Health experts weigh in on the vitamins (and supplements) you should always take with food to maximize your body’s absorption.
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Vitamins and supplements to take with food
You know that the best way to get your daily recommended amount of vitamins and minerals is through whole foods. However, sometimes your diet may not provide you with all the essential nutrients your body needs throughout the day. Enter: Dietary supplements.
Vitamin and mineral supplements can provide an extra boost and prevent a deficiency for those who have a health condition, or simply need more in your diet. When it comes to supplements, choosing the correct dosage is important, as well as how and with what you take your vitamin.
Read on to learn the dietary supplements you should always take with food to maximize your body’s absorption. Also, check out the ways to make your vitamins more effective.
Vision- and immunity-boosting vitamin A is fat-soluble, meaning the body absorbs it with fats in the diet, so it’s best taken with food. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, beta-carotene (an important source of vitamin A) is the most common vitamin A-type in foods and dietary supplements. The recommended amount of vitamin A varies by the individual based on age and sex. (Learn the vitamin secrets doctors tell their friends.)
“Probiotics, which can be the most expensive of all your vitamins, should be taken just before or at the time of your meals to help decrease the effects of stomach acid that can kill the probiotics,” says Elsie Koh, MD, medical director of Azura Vascular Care, a nationwide company that focuses on outpatient vascular care and ambulatory surgery centers. Waiting until after the meal won’t have those same benefits—a 2011 study published in Beneficial Microbes found that most of the beneficial bacteria in a probiotic supplement survived when taken 30 minutes before or during a meal; very few did when taken half an hour after eating. A bit of fat also seemed to help; more survived with one percent milk or oat milk than with apple juice or water.
Your skin produces “the sunshine vitamin” when it’s exposed to sunlight, but it can be tough to get enough in just food sources. If you take a supplement to boost your body’s levels, you’ll want to have a bite to eat with this fat-soluble vitamin, says Rachel Fine, RD, owner of To The Pointe Nutrition. “Vitamin D supplements should be taken with food, preferably with your largest meal of the day, which is likely to contain the most fat,” says Fine. “Research [a 2010 study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research] has shown that this can increase absorption up to 50 percent.”
This antioxidant can protect your body from tissue-damaging molecules called free radicals—especially if you take it with food. This vitamin is fat-soluble, so taking it with a snack (bonus points if it’s seeds or nuts, which contain healthy fats and extra vitamin E) will boost absorption, according to Medline Plus. Watch out for these other signs your vitamins aren’t going to work.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, fish oil might not be all it’s cracked up to be in terms of protecting the heart. Neither is the belief that you’re better off getting omega-3s from actual fish and other food sources. That said, a pill a day likely won’t do harm (other than an unpleasant aftertaste). Also, some doctors still recommend them as a preventive measure. But if you don’t eat fish—and fish oil is still part of your daily routine—be sure to take the tablets with a meal. “Take these with food in the morning to avoid any regurgitation or burping of the oil,” recommends Elroy Vojdani, MD, functional medicine expert and founder of Regenera Medical, in Los Angeles.
Vitamin K helps with bone-building and blood-coagulation, but a deficiency is rare. If your doctor does recommend a supplement, know that it’s fat-soluble and fares better when taken with food that contains a bit of fat. Here’s how to spot the silent signs that you may have a vitamin deficiency.
There are two main forms of calcium—calcium carbonate and calcium citrate—and whether food is necessary depends on which type you’re taking, says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and medical advisory board member for vitamin company Persona. Calcium citrate doesn’t require food, but the stomach acid produced when you eat helps the body absorb calcium citrate, says Dr. Roizen, who generally recommends calcium citrate. It’s also worth noting that supplements often contain both calcium and fat-soluble vitamin D (which helps absorb the mineral); those should be taken with food too. No matter which form you take, you’re best off taking no more than 600 milligrams of calcium at a time, says Dr. Roizen, author of What to Eat When; the body can’t absorb much more than that at a time, so any extra would be a waste. And save any high-calcium snacks for later on, when your body is ready to absorb more.
Most multivitamins contain a mix of water-soluble vitamins (like B and C) and fat-soluble vitamins, so you’ll want to prep your body to absorb both. “Taking half a high-quality multivitamin in the a.m. and half in the p.m. makes sense since the excess water-soluble components are urinated out in under 16 hours,” says Dr. Roizen. “So to keep a relatively consistent level, take half with some warm water, tea, or coffee, and be sure to add a little fat beforehand (e.g. a few walnuts—two or three is all that is needed). This should facilitate better absorption of the fat-soluble components.”
Even though there’s no conclusive evidence that echinacea can stop a cold, it’s one of the most popular herbal supplements on the market. Mount Sinai recommends never taking echinacea on an empty stomach, so be sure to eat before taking echinacea. Find out which vitamins and supplements nutritionists take to boost their immune systems.
Iron (if your tummy is sensitive)
Given that about eight percent of women have iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor might recommend taking an iron supplement, according to a 2016 study in PLoS One. The body actually has an easier time absorbing iron when taken on an empty stomach, but some people still might be better off taking the pills with food, according to the MedlinePlus. Iron can cause digestive issues like nausea, diarrhea, and cramps, but eating a bit of food will offset those unpleasant side effects. “If you have a sensitive stomach, take it first thing in the morning and wash it down with juice,” recommends Dr. Koh. Just make sure you avoid caffeine, milk, and calcium supplements when taking iron, as those block some iron absorption, warns Dr. Roizen. Here are the supplement or medication combos you should never mix.
- National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin A”
- Elsie Koh, MD, medical director of Azura Vascular Care
- Beneficial Microbes: “The impact of meals on a probiotic during transit through a model of the human upper gastrointestinal tract”
- Journal of Bone and Mineral Research: “Taking vitamin D with the largest meal improves absorption and results in higher serum levels of 25‐hydroxyvitamin D”
- Medline Plus: “Vitamin E”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth”
- Elroy Vojdani, MD, functional medicine expert and founder of Regenera Medical, in Los Angeles
- Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, medical advisory board member for vitamin company Persona, and author of What to Eat When
- Mount Sinai: “Echinacea”
- PLoS One: “The Prevalence of Anemia and Moderate-Severe Anemia in the US Population (NHANES 2003-2012)”
- Medline Plus: “Taking iron supplements”