How can a healthy diet benefit my eye health?

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Trouble seeing at night? Maybe some apricots are in order. Apricots are rich in beta carotene, a carotenoid that the body converts to vitamin A. And research shows beta carotene may help with night vision—and possibly even play a part in preventing cataracts. Carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and winter squash are other great sources of beta carotene.

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 2 million Americans over age 40 suffer with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of central blindness, and another 7 million boomers are at risk. Individuals with AMD are unable to see images directly in front of them, which affects their everyday functioning, such as the ability to read, drive, and even watch television.

While a comprehensive eye exam by an eye care professional is the best way to detect AMD and cataracts in their early stages, your diet may also provide some eye protection. A waist-friendly diet, chock full of carotenoid-rich green leafy vegetables and fruits such as oranges as well as omega-3 fatty acids-rich fish, may not only reduce your risk of developing AMD and cataracts but also heart disease and cancer. That's a lot of health coverage per bite.

The carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are abundant in the lens of your eyes appear to be super antioxidants. These carotenoids have been shown to help protect the eyes from both AMD and cataracts. Studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in both your eye and brain, can help protect against the inflammation that can damage your eyes. Lastly, being obese appears to also increase the risk of both AMD and cataracts. 

Diet is the first line of defense to protect your eyes. However, a supplement may be in order depending upon your medical history. Check with your health care professional and a registered dietitian before taking supplements to make sure that they are appropriate for you.

Dr. Darria Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine Specialist

First, it’s important to note that an overall healthy diet has been shown to promote good eye health. It’s always better to get vitamins and minerals in your food, rather than in pill form.

But certain supplements can help reduce the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a major cause of vision loss in older adults. One particular combination—500mg of vitamin C, 400IU of vitamin E, 15mg beta carotene, 80mg of zinc and 2mg copper—has been shown to lower the chance of progressing to advanced AMD over 5 years by 25 percent.

However, other supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, lutein or zeaxanthin don’t seem to improve AMD.  However, omega-3s and omega-6 fatty acids may help improve the symptoms of chronic dry eyes, another common eye condition.

Studies have shown that whole foods like fruits and vegetables offer greater protection for eye health than the consumption of individual nutrients or phytochemicals. This could be due to several things, including better absorption or metabolism from whole foods and additional, enhanced or synergistic effects of the multiple phytochemicals found in foods, as opposed to individual phytochemicals in supplements.

Additionally, eating fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cataracts by 10 to 15 percent. The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, making cantaloupes and other foods that are high in this carotenoid essential for night vision and overall eye function. Vitamin A deficiency has been associated with a higher incidence of macular degeneration. Other beta-carotene sources include carrots, kale, spinach and apricots.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.