You’ve probably heard that carrots are good for your eyes. But what about the benefits of other foods?
Is there a healthy diet that protects your vision? The answer is maybe. Scientists believe a lack of certain nutrients, including some vitamins, carotenoids and fats, may be one of the reasons why your macula and other parts of the eye may start to deteriorate with age.
Upping your intake of these nutrients may help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration and other eye diseases.
The best diet for eye health
Eating for eye health doesn’t require you to add uncommon or unappetizing foods to your daily diet. An eye-friendly diet is a healthy, balanced diet that also protects you from other serious diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Fruits and vegetables for eye health
Carotenoids are a family of nutrients found in richly colored fruits and vegetables. Your body converts some carotenoids into vitamins; for example, turning beta carotene into vitamin A. Carotenoid nutrients are highly concentrated in the eye’s retina and often become significantly reduced when the macula starts to deteriorate.
Many carotenoids have antioxidant properties. Your body — and your eyes — use the antioxidants to combat unstable molecules in the bloodstream, called free radicals. Free radicals perform a number of useful functions in the body, but a surplus can damage normal cells in a process called oxidation. Oxidation is thought to play a role in the development of eye diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataracts.
Lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health
Accumulating evidence indicates that lutein and zeaxanthin may play important roles in preventing and reducing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. These two carotenoids, which are highly concentrated in the macula, seem to filter out damaging radiation from sunlight. Both are also strong antioxidants, protecting your eyes against oxidation.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are found at high levels in dark green leafy vegetables and herbs. That includes foods such as spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard, watercress and parsley. Lutein and zeaxanthin also are present in orange bell peppers and egg yolks.
Other antioxidants for eye health
The benefits of other antioxidants for eye health aren’t quite as clear. Studies of beta carotene, vitamin C, lycopene (found in tomatoes) and cryptoxanthin (found in avocados and mangoes) have produced mixed results. More research is required to establish a clear relationship between these nutrients and the prevention of eye-related diseases.
Though not all evidence is conclusive, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet is an excellent way to promote good eye health. It’s also good for your overall health in general. Try eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
The wider the variety, the better. The most colorful fruits and vegetables — yellow, orange, red, blue and dark green — contain nutrients that are the most highly concentrated in your eyes. But this doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones you should eat. Most fresh produce is beneficial to your health.
Can eating fish help my eye health?
A healthy retina contains a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show that a diet high in fish and omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of advanced macular degeneration. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in certain varieties of fish, such as salmon, tuna, halibut and herring. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in lesser amounts in flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and canola oil.
Vitamin and mineral supplements for eye health
If you eat a balanced diet, your eyes should be getting all of the nutrients they need. It’s fine to take a daily vitamin and mineral supplement, but supplements aren’t a substitute for a healthy diet.
Studies show that certain combinations of vitamins and minerals may slow the progress of an eye disorder, but they don’t appear to have any preventive effects. If you take daily supplements, don’t exceed 100% of the Daily Value for each substance, unless your doctor advises otherwise.
Zinc supplements for macular degeneration
One of the most common trace minerals in your body, zinc is concentrated in the retina. Although the role of zinc in eye health is unclear, some scientists speculate that a lack of zinc may contribute to macular degeneration.
A balanced diet usually provides you with adequate amounts of zinc, but researchers are studying the long-term effect of zinc supplements. There are dangers associated with high doses of zinc because it may reduce copper or iron absorption into your bloodstream. But it’s possible that taking a zinc supplement may prevent macular degeneration from progressing to advanced stages.
Other vitamin and mineral supplements for macular degeneration
Several years ago, results from a study called the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) provided encouraging news regarding vision and diet. The study, funded by the National Eye Institute, included people with dry macular degeneration, at different stages of the disease. Some participants were given a daily high-dose vitamin and mineral supplement of vitamin A (beta carotene), vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and copper. Others were given an inactive pill (placebo). Over a five-year period, the participants were closely monitored, and outcomes from the two groups were compared.
Individuals in the supplement group lowered their risk of advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration by about 25%. They also reduced their risk of vision loss due to macular degeneration by about 19%. However, only participants in the intermediate and advanced stages of macular degeneration benefited from the supplements. Participants with no age-related macular degeneration or in early stages of the disease saw no benefit.
A few years later, the same research group conducted a second study called AREDS2 to determine if they could improve the formulation. Based on this study, the AREDS2 formula was altered. Beta carotene was removed and lutein and zeaxanthin were added.
The AREDS and AREDS2 formulations are sold at local pharmacies. You might consider taking the formulations if you have intermediate dry macular degeneration in one or both eyes or advanced dry macular degeneration in one eye but not the other and you want to keep the disease from progressing to a more advanced stage. At this point, there’s little evidence that the AREDS formulation can prevent macular degeneration, especially among those with a family history of the disease.
Vitamin supplements for cataracts
Observational studies indicate that multivitamins may lower the risk of cataracts, but these findings haven’t been confirmed with clinical trials. It’s possible the reduced risk may be due to other factors practiced by people taking the vitamins.
The long view
Preserving your eyesight and reducing your risk of eye disease doesn’t happen overnight. It may take years before you see positive results. But in addition to benefits to your eyesight, adopting these healthy habits can go a long way toward improving your overall health and quality of life.
Mayo Clinic Guide to Better Vision, Third Edition
Mayo Clinic Guide to Better Vision, Sophie J. Bakri, M.D., walks readers through the diagnoses and treatment options associated with common eye issues, as well as preventive measures for protecting your eyes.Shop Now