You've got your morning routine down. You brew a pot of coffee, pop your supplements and sit down to a nutritious breakfast.
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Despite your focused efforts, it's possible that your vitamin regimen might be working against you. If you're taking an iron supplement with breakfast that contains dairy, the calcium may be stymying your body's ability to use the iron.
This isn't great considering our bodies need iron to make proteins that ferry around oxygen and to support energy and brainpower, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Among other things, an iron deficiency can leave you tired and forgetful.
Your Calcium-Rich Breakfast Might Interfere With Your Iron Supplement
So, what exactly is going wrong when you pair an iron supplement with breakfast foods that contain calcium?
"Calcium and iron compete for the same receptors in the body. So, consuming calcium at the same time as an iron supplement can inhibit the absorption of the iron," Lisa Young, PhD, RD, a nutritionist and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
FYI, many common breakfast foods and drinks contain calcium, such as:
- milk and non-dairy alternatives
- orange juice
If you're taking a multivitamin that contains iron, you'll notice that the multi won't contain calcium in the same concentration. In other words, "if your multivitamin has 100 percent of the daily value for iron, it will only have a small amount of calcium," Young says.
You can see this at work in Nature Made Women's Multivitamin, which includes 18 milligrams of iron (100 percent of the daily value for women) but 250 milligrams of calcium (19 percent of the daily value). Even trendy supplement companies like Ritual add iron to their multi for women, but leave out calcium on purpose.
If you're taking a separate iron supplement, it's probably because it was recommended by your doctor in order to treat a condition like anemia.
The Best Way to Take Iron Supplements
You'll want to take calcium and iron supplements at different times of the day, if possible, per the NIH. There are some other considerations you may want to keep in mind before deciding how you'll split up your supplement routine.
1. Take Your Iron Supplement on an Empty Stomach
Even if you take your calcium and iron supplements at different times, eating calcium-rich foods with iron in a supplement or multivitamin could be problematic, Young says.
The best option, in this case, is to take an iron supplement on an empty stomach for best absorption, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
2. Avoid Pairing Your Iron Supplement With Calcium or High-Fiber Foods
If you find that taking iron without food upsets your stomach, it's fine to take with some food, but lean toward options that aren't rich in calcium. Ideally, you'll wait 2 hours to have dairy and other sources of calcium.
You should also avoid high-fiber foods, like whole grains, raw veggies and bran, as well as caffeinated drinks like coffee when taking iron, according to the NLM.
3. Go for Vitamin C
Take iron with something packed with vitamin C, like orange juice, which might help the iron absorb better, per the NLM.
So, Should You Continue Taking Iron at Breakfast?
If you're taking an iron supplement to build up your body's iron stores and treat a problem like anemia, you'll want to take the above precautions more seriously. Check in with your doctor and have them schedule follow-up blood tests to ensure that your iron levels are increasing in the context of your current diet and supplement regimen.
However, if you're taking a multivitamin with iron and your iron levels are normal, you don't need to be as careful about how you take these supplements.
You don't necessarily have to change your habits, Young says, and you'll still absorb some of the iron. "Don't go nuts trying to perfectly time things," she says. Instead, consider these two points:
- If you like to eat yogurt (or other dairy products) and rely on it as a source of protein and calcium in your diet and the only or best time for you to eat it is in the morning with breakfast — the same time you take your multi with iron — then just eat the yogurt, Young says.
- If you have more control over your schedule and you're fine with changing up your breakfast to something like eggs, then go ahead and make that yogurt a mid-afternoon snack, Young says.
Beyond yogurt, remember that foods like milk and cheese are rich in calcium, which is something to be mindful of when you're trying to make the most of your iron supplement. You'll also find calcium in veggies like bok choy. It's even in sardines because their little bones are edible (and packed with calcium), Young says.
Last thing: While supplements have their place, food is usually the best way to give your body what it needs. Eating iron-rich foods, including lean meat, seafood, iron-fortified cereals and breads, beans, nuts and raisins, can help you meet your daily needs, per the NIH.