While eating a balanced diet is the best way to get all your essential nutrients, sometimes vitamin supplements are needed to fill the gaps. And whether you're taking them to help correct a deficiency or to balance out your limited diet, you want to make sure you're getting the most bang for your buck.
The question is: Should vitamins be taken with food?
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Turns out, when you take your vitamins — like before, during or after a meal — is important because some nutrients are better absorbed with food, while others are fine to take on an empty stomach, says Melissa Dorval, RD, a registered dietitian in California.
Here, learn when you should take vitamins along with the common side effects of taking vitamins on an empty stomach.
Talk to your doctor before taking any vitamin or supplement to ensure it's right for you based on your medical history, allergies and other medications you're taking.
Which Vitamins Should Be Taken With Food?
While it may feel tempting to just pop your pills right when you wake up in the morning, there are some vitamins that should be taken with food for better absorption. These include:
Vitamins A, E and K
These are fat-soluble vitamins, meaning they are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine and stored in your body's fatty tissues, according to a February 2016 review in the Clinical Biochemist Reviews.
The absorption of these vitamins is greatly improved when they are taken at mealtime with a food that contains a little fat, per the Cleveland Clinic. Foods high in healthy fat that are good choices to eat with vitamins A, E and K supplements include avocado, nuts, fatty fish like salmon, eggs, tofu and olives.
Note: Deficiency in these vitamins, especially vitamin K, is rare, so only take a supplement if your doctor has suggested it, per the National Library of Medicine (NLM). There is also a higher risk of vitamin toxicity with fat-soluble vitamins like A and E, according to Colorado State University.
Vitamin D (With Exceptions)
While the presence of fat in the gut enhances vitamin D absorption, some vitamin D is absorbed without dietary fat, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This means certain types of vitamin D supplements can be taken with food or without food. (Always check the label to determine the kind you are taking.)
When it comes to vitamin D3 in particular, a February 2015 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that men absorb 32 percent more vitamin D3 when taking it with a meal containing fat as opposed to a fat-free meal. (Note: The study authors identified their participants as men, which is why we've included this type of gendered language. LIVESTRONG.com otherwise tries to avoid using gendered language.)
That said, you can also buy vitamin D3 tablets that contain oil — such as Life Extension's Vitamin D3 ($7.50 for 60 softgels, LifeExtension.com) — if you want the convenience of taking a vitamin supplement without food.
No matter the form you take it in, vitamin D is an important nutrient for the health of your immune system and your bones, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Aim to get about 600 International Units (IU) of vitamin D per day, per the NIH. Try taking it at the same time every day so you don't forget.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Unlike vitamins A, E and K, vitamin D deficiency is common, affecting 30 to 50 percent of the population. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include bone pain, muscle weakness or cramps, fatigue or mood changes like depression, per the Cleveland Clinic. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure optimal absorption of your supplement if your doctor has advised you to take a vitamin D supplement.
Calcium and Zinc
Both calcium and zinc are often best absorbed when taken with food. Calcium is best absorbed when taken in small amounts (500 milligrams or less) throughout the day, per the NIH.
It's also worth noting that if you are going to take zinc alongside foods containing dairy, the zinc will be better absorbed if dairy is eaten with another food source, like bread for example, per a December 2021 study in Nutrients.
Multivitamins — especially ones that have calcium — are best taken with food containing a little fat, and plenty of water, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Indeed, many nutrients found in multivitamins are absorbed and used more efficiently in the body when taken together (like vitamin D with calcium and B12 with folate, for example), according to Harvard Health Publishing.
This is also why taking multivitamins with food increases your chances of nutrients working optimally, especially if your multivitamin is largely comprised of fat-soluble vitamins, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Still, can you take a multivitamin on an empty stomach? If you do happen to find it's easier to take your multivitamins with just water, not to worry — the effectiveness doesn't drop that much, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Sometimes, taking a multivitamin can cause stomach upset and nausea when taken on an empty stomach. If this is the case for you, try taking a vitamin for sensitive stomachs or take vitamins with food to see if symptoms subside.
Any supplements you take are often best taken with food to avoid an upset stomach, unless the directions (or your doctor) say otherwise. Some common supplements to take with food include:
- Glucosamine: This is a supplement that can help reduce swelling and inflammation in the joints, but often causes indigestion when taken on an empty stomach. Try taking it with food to relieve side effects, per Mount Sinai.
- Chondroitin: This is often found in combination with glucosamine in several over-the-counter supplements, meaning it can also cause mild stomach upset that might be relieved with food, per Mount Sinai.
- CoQ10: This supplement is a powerful antioxidant that could help reduce the risk of heart disease. It is fat-soluble, so it should be taken with food, per Mount Sinai.
- Curcumin: This is an element of turmeric with anti-inflammatory properties that can be taken in capsule form, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Fish oil: While omega-3 fatty acids are typically found in food, you can take the fat-soluble vitamin in capsule form as fish oil. You may experience digestive upset if you take it without food, however, per the NIH.
Which Vitamins Can Be Taken Without Food?
Some vitamins are actually better absorbed when taken without food. These include:
Vitamins B and C
The eight B vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble, meaning they dissolve in water upon entering the body and cannot be stored in the body for later use, (i.e., any excess is passed through your urine), per the NLM. This means you do not need to take them with a meal for them to be absorbed.
All B vitamins and vitamin C can be taken first thing in the morning with a glass of water, or any time throughout the day when you remember.
Should you take vitamin C with food? Usually no, but it's important to note that high doses of vitamin C can cause upset stomach. So, consider splitting up the amount you take throughout the day into no more than 500-milligram doses, or taking it with a snack to minimize GI upset, says Alan R. Gaby, MD, nutritional medicine practitioner and author of Nutritional Medicine.
Dr. Gaby also warns against taking B vitamins at night as they can sometimes interfere with sleep. So if you are going to supplement with vitamin B, aim to take it in the morning or afternoon.
Iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach and taken with water. But is iron fat- or water-soluble?
Iron supplements are water-soluble, meaning they shouldn't be taken with food, especially milk, calcium or antacids, as these inhibit the absorption of iron. Wait at least two hours after having these foods before taking your iron supplement, per the NLM.
Other foods you should avoid with iron supplements include, per the NLM:
- High-fiber foods like whole grains, raw vegetables and bran
- Foods or drinks with caffeine, like coffee
If you do get an upset stomach from taking iron supplements, doctors may suggest you take it with orange juice or other small portions of foods high in vitamin C like tomatoes or peppers. Not only does this help fill your stomach a little, but vitamin C also helps iron absorb into your body, per the NLM.
The Bottom Line
So, do you have to take vitamins with food? It all depends on the type of vitamin.
If you're taking fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, it's best to take them with a little bit of food (during or after meals) that contain a source of fat. If you're taking water-soluble vitamins, like B vitamins, C and iron, it's best to take them on an empty stomach (before meals) so they can be best absorbed by your body.
If you get nauseous, gassy or have diarrhea from taking vitamins on an empty stomach, it may be in your best interest to take them with a bit of food or right after a meal.
Even if you're taking a multivitamin with both fat and water-soluble vitamins, do what gives you the least amount of digestive upset.
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin E
- MedlinePlus: Vitamin K
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Vitamin D Deficiency : An Important, Common, and Easily Treatable Cardiovascular Risk Factor?
- Melissa Dorval Pine, RDN
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- Mount Sinai: "Coenzyme Q10 Information"
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- Alan R. Gaby, MD
- NLM: "Taking Iron Supplements"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Nutrition's Dynamic Duos"
- Mount Sinai: "Glucosamine Information"
- Mount Sinai: "Chondroitin Information"
- Colorado State University: Fat-Soluble Vitamins A, D, E and K"
- Bottom Line Health: There’s a Right Way (and a Wrong Way) to Take Your Supplements
- Dr. Whitaker: When to Take Supplements