How Vitamin E Helps Protect Against Cancer

The Physicians Committee

How Vitamin E Helps Protect Against Cancer

Vitamin E is a natural cancer fighter found in the germ of wheat and other grains, nuts, and beans. It is a fat-soluble vitamin that is thought to protect the body from a plethora of diseases, such as arthritis; heart disease; diabetes; bowel, lung, and renal disease; and also cancer.1 Its major function in the body is to act as an antioxidant. Vitamin E works quickly and reacts with destructive substances called free radicals, rendering them harmless before they get a chance to harm DNA, therefore preventing mutations and tumor growth. Studies have suggested that if you are running low on vitamin E, you may be at increased cancer risk.2 Studies specific for vitamin E have shown it to significantly decrease risk for prostate, colon, and lung cancers.3-6

Food Sources

Vitamin E is synthesized only by plants and is found in largest amounts in plant oils. Unlike vitamin A, which is stored in the liver in enormous quantities and is easily accessible, vitamin E is kept in fat tissue and is more difficult to retrieve. Your body can go without taking in vitamin A for up to one or two year without suffering from a deficiency, but only two to six weeks without vitamin E consumption.1 Therefore, it is important to consume enough vitamin E on a regular basis.

The recommended dietary allowance of vitamin E is 8 milligrams per day for women and 10 milligrams per day for men. To get the best benefit from this cancer-fighting nutrient, you will want to include plenty of vitamin E-rich foods in your diet to meet or exceed this amount. Choosing a serving or two of vitamin C rich-foods daily will help your body recycle vitamin E and use it repeatedly.

Here are some food sources of vitamin E:

Food Vitamin E (mg/serving)
Almonds, 1 ounce dried 6.7
Avocado, 1 medium 2.3
Broccoli, 1 cup cooked 2.6
Brown rice, 1 cup cooked 1.4
Brussels sprouts, 1 cup cooked 1.3
Canola oil, 1 tablespoon 2.9
Hazelnuts, 1 ounce dry roasted 6.8
Mango, 1 medium 2.3
Mustard greens, 1 cup cooked 2.8
Navy beans, 1 cup cooked 4.1
Olive oil, 1 tablespoon 1.7
Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons 3.2
Pinto beans, 1 cup cooked 1.6
Soybeans, 1 cup cooked 3.4
Spaghetti sauce, 1 cup cooked 3.1
Spinach, 1 cup raw 1.6
Sunflower seeds, 1 ounce dry roasted 14.3
Wheat germ, 1 ounce toasted 4.0

Tips for Increasing Vitamin E in Your Diet

  • Instead of using butter or cream cheese on your toast, try using peanut butter or, if you're feeling adventurous, those delicious and under-appreciated almond and sunflower butters available in health food stores.
  • Always choose peanut, almond, or other butters that are made only from nuts, with no added sweeteners. Sweetened butters often contain hydrogenated oils (which contain artery-clogging trans-fatty acids) as well as high amounts of sugar. By choosing a sugar-free butter you will get more vitamin E per calorie. If these sugar-free peanut/almond butters don't seem sweet enough for you, just give your taste buds time to readjust. Soon you will lose your taste for those sugary, over-processed spreads.
  • If you use oil in cooking, try switching to a little canola oil. Not only is canola oil a good source of vitamin E, but it is also a great source of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids including the essential omega-3 fatty acids.
  • For a snack, try some roasted nuts or trail mix.
  • Have some wheat germ for breakfast. If you don't like it straight, try mixing it with other cereal.
  • Sprinkle some walnuts or sunflower seeds over your salad.
  • Watch your fat intake. It's good to limit nuts and oils that do not have a lot of vitamin E, such as cashews, macadamia nuts, and pine nuts, in order to make room for vitamin E-rich foods.
  • If you are on a low-fat diet and are concerned you are not getting enough vitamin E, feel free to take a supplement. While vitamin E from foods is always preferred, studies show that the benefits of vitamin E are still seen with the use of supplements. Look for supplements made without gelatin.

1. Combs GF. Vitamin E. In the Vitamins: Fundamental Aspects in Nutrition and Health. 2nd edition. Academic Press, 1992:190-219.
2. Knekt P, Aromaa A, Maatela J, et al. Vitamin E and cancer prevention. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991;53:283-286.
3. Giovannucci E. Gamma-tocopherol: a new player in prostate cancer prevention? J Natl Cancer Inst. 2000;92:1966-1967.
4. Smigel K. Vitamin E reduces prostate cancer rates in Finnish trial: U.S. considers follow-up. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1998;90:416-417.
5. Stone WL, Papas AM. Tocopherols and the etiology of colon cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1997;89:1006-1014.
6. Woodson K, Tangrea JA, Barrett MJ, et al. Serum alpha-tocopherol and subsequent risk of lung cancer among male smokers. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999;91:1738-1743.