With most nutrients, it’s a no-brainer to point to all the easy Paleo sources that provide plenty for everyone. But with Vitamin E, it’s a little harder, especially if you don’t eat nuts or seeds.
Commonly cited sources of Vitamin E include…
- Fortified cereals and granola
- Wheat germ oil
- Seeds, nuts, and oils made out of them (especially almonds and sunflower seeds)
- Peanuts and peanut oil.
Coming in at the tail end of the list are a few green vegetables (spinach and broccoli) and fruits (kiwi, mango, and tomatoes). So if you’re eating Paleo (especially if you’re eating Paleo and trying to cut down on nuts), what on earth is left?
Quite a bit, actually! There’s absolutely no human nutritional need for sunflower oil, much less vitamin-fortified cereal. And in fact, there’s a major Paleo source of Vitamin E that the list completely leaves out – one that you’re probably already eating for its other health benefits! So here’s a look at what Vitamin E does for you and why you want it, plus how you can get it from Paleo foods even without any nuts.
Vitamin E: Why It’s Important
(note for the nutrition nerds: there are many different kinds of Vitamin E; for simplicity, “Vitamin E” here means alpha-tocopherol, since that’s the only kind that can fill human nutritional needs)
Vitamin E is an important nutrient for all kinds of reasons. Among other things, it’s a powerful antioxidant, and it’s important for skin health, immunity, and fertility.
Like Vitamin C, Vitamin E is an antioxidant: it helps protect cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. If you’re not a fan of cancer, cardiovascular disease, early aging, and overall inflammation, then you want plenty of Vitamin E around.
Because of its antioxidant properties, Vitamin E can help protect skin from UV damage – and not just when it’s applied as a cream or lotion. Dietary Vitamin E also has benefits, although it does take some time for the Vitamin E that you eat to make its way out to your skin. That’s particularly true when Vitamin E is combined with Vitamin C: both together are much better than just the Vitamin E alone.
Vitamin E is often touted as a “fertility vitamin,” but here, the evidence isn’t anywhere near what we’d like it to be. There are studies on rats, mice, quail, rabbits, cows, chickens, sheep…but the human studies are in short supply! There’s some evidence that it might help with infertility treatments, though, and that it might help improve sperm quality in men.
Vitamin E is also crucial for keeping your immune function up and running. Vitamin C gets all the good press, but good press doesn’t always tell the whole story. Vitamin E is important for immunity at the cellular level – and just like with skin health, the effects of Vitamin E are compounded when it’s added to Vitamin C.
Vitamin E: The Secret Paleo Weapon
And now we get to the dilemma at the beginning of the article: with most of the major sources of Vitamin E being either nuts (borderline-Paleo) or completely non-Paleo foods, how do you actually get the stuff?
The RDA for Vitamin E is 15mg (or 22.4 IU) for healthy adults above age 14 (except for breastfeeding women, who need 19mg or 29.4 IU).
Fortunately for you, Paleo has a hidden Vitamin E weapon that you’ve probably been eating all along without even worrying about it. Can you spot it in the list of Paleo Vitamin E sources?
RDA (for reference): 15mg - 100%
Sunflower seeds (¼ cup serving): 12.3mg - 82%
Almonds (¼ cup serving): 10.2mg - 68%
Hazelnuts (¼ cup serving): 4.32mg - 28%
Almond butter (1 tbsp.): 3.87mg - 25%
Spinach (1 cup cooked): 3.74mg - 25%
Canned tomato sauce (1 cup): 3.53mg - 24%
Avocados (1 avocado); 2.68mg - 18%
Palm oil (1 tbsp.): 2.17mg - 14%
Canned tomato paste (3 tbsp.): 2.07 - 14%
Olive oil (1 tbsp.): 1.94mg - 13%
Broccoli (1 cup cooked): 1.13mg - 7%
It’s cooking fat! Both olive oil and palm oil are healthy Paleo plant fats, and both contain around 2mg of Vitamin E per tablespoon. If you use 3-4 tablespoons of cooking fat for the whole day, that’s already half of your Vitamin E taken care of. That's a whole lot easier than eating huge piles of spinach every day, and you're probably already doing it.
The standard list of “foods high in Vitamin E” ignores the two cooking fats completely, which is doubly silly because these oils don’t just supply the vitamin; they also supply the fat you need to absorb it. Vitamin E is fat-soluble, so eating it with fat helps get the good stuff to where it’s actually needed. That’s why people with absorptive disorders like Crohn’s Disease are often deficient in Vitamin E: it’s not really about the vitamin; it’s about the fat. Getting the vitamin packaged directly with plenty of healthy fats is a convenient way to ensure absorption.
Once you take that as a baseline, add plenty of delicious guacamole, throw in a handful of nuts every now and again, and top it off with some Salmon Florentine once in a while, it’s very easy to see how a Paleo diet could be rich in Vitamin E without the need for any supplements at all.
A few other miscellaneous tips:
- Cook with canned or dehydrated tomatoes. With ingredients like tomato sauce and tomato paste, you’re taking out a lot of water in the fresh tomatoes, which makes the nutrients more concentrated. Why not try some brisket chili, lasagna, or Paleo spaghetti?
- Puree spinach and hide it in other things. This is a good idea even without thinking of Vitamin E at all: spinach is just that good for you.Meatloaf, meatballs, soups, smoothies, casseroles, and similar dishes are all perfect opportunities for hiding some greens, without actually changing the taste of the finished meal.
- Get plenty of Vitamin C – remember from above that Vitamin E and Vitamin C work together. Both together are much more powerful than either one alone.
What About Supplements?
Whenever anything sounds like a pain in the neck, it’s so tempting just to pop a pill. Unfortunately, though, there’s some evidence that taking high-dose Vitamin E supplements may actually do more harm than good. As the authors of that study concluded:
The optimal source of antioxidants seems to come from our diet, not from antioxidant supplements in pills or tablets.
Summing it Up
It’s absolutely possible to get enough Vitamin E from whole foods without eating any fortified anything, and even without any nuts or seeds. For one thing, cooking with healthy fats like olive oil and palm oil can give your Vitamin E intake a giant boost: even a few tablespoons over the course of the day really adds up! And while you’re on an olive oil kick, break out the tomato sauce for some Italian-inspired dinners and get a double dose.
It’s pretty wonderful how that always seems to happen: eating a varied, whole-foods diet covers most of your nutritional bases without any need to worry about it. That’s the beauty of Paleo: you don’t have to go hunt down specific obscure foods to get each separate vitamin. So don't worry about getting Vitamin E without your fortified breakfast cereal or a bunch of supplemental safflower oil: you're already covered. It’s almost like whole foods are the best way to provide nutrition for human beings! (funny how that works...).