Vitamin E or tocopherol, a known antioxidant, may play a role in the etiology of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. This study examined both "internal" (lipids, lipoproteins, and apoproteins) and "external" (dietary components, physical activity, and body mass index) factors which may influence plasma alpha-tocopherol and gamma-tocopherol levels. Analyses were done using dietary questionnaires and plasma obtained from 65 nonsmoking male volunteers aged 30-59 years. Forty-six men did not take any supplements while 19 took supplements containing vitamin E. A positive correlation (r = 0.32; P < 0.01) between vitamin E intake and alpha-tocopherol status [(ratio of plasma alpha- or gamma-tocopherol/(total triglycerides + total cholesterol)] and a negative correlation (r = -0.33; P < 0.007) between intake and gamma-tocopherol status were observed. The main internal factors, or determinants, for plasma alpha-tocopherol for nonsupplement users were plasma triglycerides and apoproteins, apoA1 and apoB, but neither lipids nor apoproteins appeared to affect tocopherol levels in supplement users. External determinants of alpha-tocopherol status in nonsupplement users were vitamin E intake, total fat intake, and body mass index, while in supplement users only vitamin E intake was important. Both vitamin E intake and alcohol intake appeared to affect plasma gamma-tocopherol status in a negative manner.