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Nutritional supplement types

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Nutritional supplements – types, and how to optimise their impact

There are many types of nutritional supplements available to us and they all provide different benefits to our health and wellbeing. But it’s not always a simple case of popping a supplement and letting it do its job – how and when we take that supplement can have a big impact of its effectiveness.

Vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble—meaning they either dissolve in and are more easily processed when they are mixed with either lipids (fats) or water. To more easily imagine this, picture what happens when you mix vinegar with olive oil for dressing. The vinegar and oil maintain their own identities and you can distinguish between the two. If you mix that vinegar in a water solution, the two blend together in a way that makes them indistinguishable from one another. In this case, vinegar is water-soluble. This is important to consider because it will determine whether a given vitamin should be consumed with food or on an empty stomach.

What nutritional supplements should you take with food?

Vitamins A, D, E and K are best absorbed when eaten with a small amount of fat, such as whole milk yogurt, fatty fish or even vegetables sautéed in olive oil. As with many things though, there are some exceptions to this. Vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins are the primary ones as they don’t need healthy fats from your diet for the body to process them. In fact, B vitamins are vital elements in metabolism and therefore are best taken on an empty stomach. Though they are also well-absorbed with food, and some people with sensitive stomachs will be more comfortable taking even the water-soluble vitamins with food.

What nutritional supplements should you take with water?

Probiotics are best taken with water, roughly 30 minutes prior to eating a meal containing some fat.1 The rationale behind that is to prevent the probiotics from being overpowered by all the other dynamics occurring when food is being digested in the body. In other words, taking probiotics prior to eating gives the probiotics a running start to work at balancing and aiding in promoting a healthy gut flora.

What about supplements that contain fat soluble and water-soluble nutrients?

What if you take a multivitamin? Does that mean you should separate out all the many vitamins in it? Of course not. One option is to take your multivitamin with a meal but be sure the fat content of that meal is within healthy moderation. Alternatively, if you want to supplement with water-soluble vitamins, you could take them upon waking up.

Calcium and magnesium are crucial minerals which have a calming effect. Perhaps the concept of a warm glass of milk before bed is a good idea after all. That said, the body can absorb only so much calcium at a given time so many experts believe it is best to divide the doses up and not take more than 500 mg at a time.2

The complexities of when to take zinc, iron and calcium

Zinc is best taken before eating and best not paired with calcium or iron, since they can fight for receptor sites. However most forms of zinc in amounts higher than a few milligrams often cause gastrointestinal upset when taken on an empty stomach, so taking zinc with food is often best, though avoiding iron and calcium at the same time is advisable. Iron should also be taken on an empty stomach and not in conjunction with calcium. The trouble is that iron supplements can cause gastrointestinal distress. A good option is to take iron with citrus, fruit or juice high in vitamin C because it helps aid in its absorption.3

What other factors affect nutrient absorption?

Generally speaking, obstacles to nutrient absorption are many of the familiar foes—caffeine, alcohol and stress. Caffeine can diminish the absorption of iron by up to 80 percent.4 That doesn’t mean you must eliminate your morning tea or coffee though.

Instead, attempt to wait at least an hour between consuming caffeine and your supplement.

Not surprisingly, alcohol shouldn’t be what you swallow your multivitamin with. Furthermore, consumed beyond moderation, alcohol can damage the lining of your digestive tract and decrease digestive enzymes.5 Stress keeps the body in fight-or-flight mode which is not conducive to digestion because the body focuses on coping with the stress instead of proper digestion.6

While these guidelines will give you an indication of when you should take different nutritional supplement types, informed experimenting is the best way to find the way your body prefers to get its food and supplements.

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  2. Straub, Deborah A. “Calcium Supplementation in Clinical Practice: A Review of Forms, Doses, and Indications.” Nutrition in Clinical Practice, vol. 22, no. 3, 1 June 2007, pp. 286-296., doi:10.1177/0115426507022003286. []
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  4. Garrison, Robert H., and Elizabeth Somer. The nutrition desk reference. Keats Pub., 1997 []
  5. Somer, Elizabeth. The essential guide to vitamins and minerals. Harper Perennial, 1995 []
  6. Mindell, Earl, and Hester Mundis. Earl Mindell’s new vitamin bible. Grand Central Life & Style, 2011 []