Foods for Healthy Eyes
Did you know that our eyes demand specific nutrients and antioxidants for proper function? There are many foods that help your eyes – and supplements, too. Eyesight is a critical sense to protect, especially as we age. I’ve got some eye-related issues that end me up in the specialty clinic yearly and so I’m so thankful for any information about how I can help my eyes long-term. Macular degeneration, cataracts, night blindness, and other age-related deterioration of the eyes are real concerns. You may have heard suggestions such as “eat more carrots to improve your eyesight” or seen supplements targeted towards eye health. And that’s not wrong…
So, does diet make a difference and are supplements indicated? I’m talking foods that help your eyes today on the blog because I partner with a really cool company called Foodtrients who focus on anti-aging, nutrition, and health. I wrote about this topic for them originally and wanted to share some of that content here for you!
Nutrients for Eye Health
Vitamin A – The vitamin with the largest body of research in support of eyesight is vitamin A. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that’s converted from the carotenoid beta-carotene, so you may hear both of these terms used when discussing eye health. These compounds are both in the carotenoid family of antioxidants. They help protect the surface of your eyes (cornea), and can help prevent eye infections and other serious eye conditions. Without vitamin A, your eyes cannot produce enough moisture to keep them properly lubricated. Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of preventable blindness in the world.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin – These naturally occurring carotenoids related to vitamin A are so critical for eye health. Lutein is a pigment in plants and zeaxanthin is an isomer (another version) of lutein. Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only carotenoids found in the macular region of the retina in the eye and act as antioxidants in that area of the body. They also appear to play a role in trapping short-wavelength light in the eye, so these antioxidants play very important roles in eye health. As they are also fat soluble, foods containing lutein and zeaxanthin are best absorbed when consumed with meals that also contain fat. Dietary sources of lutein are easy to increase; no supplements needed!
Vitamin C – An antioxidant that may lower the risk of cataracts. In humans, the aqueous humor (the fluid that fills the anterior and posterior chambers of the eyes) contains 15-20 times more vitamin C than blood plasma. This indicates that vitamin C may be playing a key role in the health of your eyes. It has been shown that decreased vitamin C concentrations in the eye lens is associated with increased severity of cataracts. Further research is needed to determine if increased vitamin C intake may reduce the risk of age-related cataracts.
Vitamin E – Another fat-soluble vitamin that also acts as a powerful antioxidant in maintaining the health and protecting the retina and lens of the eyes. Studies have shown vitamin E supplementation to slow the loss of retinal function in those who have retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and may benefit from long term supplementation. RP is a rare inherited degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. In addition, vitamin E combined with other antioxidant vitamins (C, β-carotene) and zinc may benefit individuals with intermediate or advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Zinc – An essential trace element for everyone, zinc interacts with vitamin A in several ways that support eye health. It is a component in retinol-binding protein, which is what carries vitamin A in the blood. Zinc is also required to convert the retinol form of vitamin A into retinal, which is the form of vitamin A required to create rhodopsin. Rhodopsin is the protein in the eye that absorbs light and is involved in dark adaptation, therefore without zinc, symptoms of night blindness begin to occur. As mentioned earlier, dietary zinc in combination with the antioxidant vitamins may prevent or delay the progression of AMD.
Foods for Healthy Eyes
- Vitamin A: fortified breakfast cereal, eggs, butter, milk, sweet potato, pumpkin, butternut squash, carrots, cantaloupe, mango, spinach, kale, broccoli
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin: green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, kiwi, grapes, orange juice, zucchini, squash, pistachios
- Vitamin C: citrus fruits and citrus juices, berries, bell peppers, kiwi
- Vitamin E: nuts, seeds, olive oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, tomato sauce, cranberry juice
- Zinc: seafood, meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, yogurt
Here are some of my own recipes that include foods containing these nutrients for healthy eyes!
Keep in mind that any vitamin or mineral taken in excess can cause negative effects. For example, excess vitamin A can cause acute or chronic toxicity and too much of this vitamin can actually lead to eye or liver damage. Vitamin A and beta carotene supplementation have been linked to increased risk of certain cancers. Lutein appears safe in a variety of studies including those on toxicity when tested in animals. All of these nutrients are so rich in a whole-foods diet, it’s easy to eat foods that help your eyes with a variety of fresh produce, nuts, seeds and grains.
Lifestyle Tips for Eye Health
Other factors for eye health include:
- Staying hydrated
- Sot smoking
- Getting assessed for diseases that damage the eyes such as diabetes
- Wearing UV eye protection
The safest way to protect your eyes is to visit an eye specialist on a regular basis and to eat a diet rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from plant sources. And yes, definitely eat your carrots! As always, make sure you discuss all of this with your physician to see if extra vitamins or minerals could help your eye health.
Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO
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