Oh, the aging process! It comes with so many challenges in terms of health. Aches and pains are only a few of the issues. For Americans aged 40 years and older, eyesight can be jeopardized in a variety of ways. Common eyesight disorders related to aging include: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, and glaucoma. Despite being unable to reverse the aging process, there is good news in that better nutrition can help our aging eyes. Since our diet is highly modifiable, adapting good nutrition strategies is pretty easy once you know what foods to eat for eye health.
Foods for eye health should be green
Green foods are rich sources of plant chemicals called lutein and zeaxanthin. These plant chemicals actually protect plants from diseases. But, when we eat those same chemicals, we are also able to gain some protection as well. Lutein and zeaxanthin are anti-oxidants that filter harmful high-energy blue wavelengths of light. Common sources of blue light include sunlight, fluorescent light, and LED televisions. Blue light exposure also comes from our electronic toys-smart phones, computer monitors, and tablets.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are very unique in that they actually accumulate in the human retina. Our body cannot make these compounds, so we must eat them. There is mounting evidence that these antioxidants help protect against both macular degeneration and cataracts.
Key food sources for these plant chemicals are just about any green leafy vegetable. These green leafy vegetables are also recommended by the Glaucoma Research Foundation to reduce glaucoma risk. Topping the list are spinach and kale (recipe). But, if you are not a fan of those two vegetables, pick any green vegetable and you will be upping the odds of getting this protective nutrient into your body and then to your eyes. Egg yolk is a non-vegetarian source of both lutein and zeaxanthin.
On the topic of green foods
While you’re thinking about green foods, drink some green tea too. Green tea is an excellent source of compounds called catechins. In particular, it’s loaded with a specific catechin called EGCG. This catechin is showing promise in protecting from corneal ulcers, but needs more research. Catechins can also function as antioxidants. With glaucoma, oxidative stress is associated with damage to the optic nerve. Ingesting antioxidants to counter that oxidative stress would be helpful in preventing further injury.
Foods for eye health should be orange
Orange colored foods are a rich source of beta-carotene. Your body converts beta-carotene to the active form of vitamin A after it is eaten. Vitamin A helps prevent dry eyes and night blindness. Both beta carotene and vitamin A reduce eye infections.
Pretty much all orange colored foods are rich in beta-carotene. Think pumpkin (healthy pumpkin pie recipe), squash, sweet potatoes, yams, cantaloupe, carrots, apricots, and mangoes. There’s something for everyone’s taste! And, if you follow the guideline to “go green,” note that many green foods are actually orange underneath all that green chlorophyll. So going green is also going orange. You can also get vitamin A from milk, eggs, liver, and cod liver oil.
Get enough vitamin C
Vitamin C is a key dietary antioxidant for our eyes and seems to protect against both cataracts and macular degeneration. Some good news is vitamin C is in all fruits and vegetables. So, if you don’t like citrus foods, then you don’t need to eat them. By following the “go green” recommendation and also eating orange foods, you’ll easily meet your vitamin C requirements.
Get enough zinc rich foods for eye health
Zinc is a mineral that activates enzymes in the body and plays a key role in helping to produce the active form of vitamin A in our visual pigment. Zinc concentrates in the eye just like lutein and zeaxanthin. Poor night vision and cataracts are linked to zinc deficiency. As the body does not produce zinc, it must come from food or supplements.
The landmark Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) showed that people at high risk for age related macular degeneration could slow the progression of advanced disease by 25% and visual acuity loss by 19% by taking very large amounts of zinc (40-180 mg/day). These amounts are much higher than the recommended amount of 8-11 mg/day for women and men respectively. Your eye care specialist should prescribe the higher dosages only as part of a treatment plan. High dosages of zinc can upset the stomach and interefere with copper and iron absoption. Food sources of zinc include animal protein, shellfish, dairy products, and enriched cereal.
Get enough vitamin E
Vitamin E is an strong antioxidant that is a key player in reducing the risk for cataracts and macular degeneration. When the lens of the eye oxidize in response to the UV rays of sunlight, cataracts form. The role of vitamin E in the diet would be to counter that oxidation. Vitamin E in conjunction with zinc, vitamin C, and beta-carotene were found to lower risk of age related macular degeneration in the landmark AREDS study noted above. Research has not supported any significant benefit of vitamin E to date for glaucoma.
Fatty foods like oils, seeds, nuts, and wheat germ are good sources of vitamin E. However, high frying temperatures or extreme processing destroy vitamin E. Work around this problem by eating more unprocessed sources of oil and fat (salad oils, nuts, seeds) and you’ll be more likely to meet your vitamin E requirements.
Strong bones may mean healthy eyes
There has been speculation that vitamin D status may be related to risk of macular degeneration. It appears that there are conflicting scientific opinions on the role, if any, vitamin D plays in protecting from macular degeneration. However, there does seem to be a strong association between osteoporosis in women and age related macular degeneration. As vitamin D is a key player for strong bones and prevention of osteoporosis, I guess the verdict is not in on this nutrient as it relates to eye health.
Osteoporosis prevention can include lifestyle and diet strategies such as:
- getting adequate calcium
- meeting vitamin D requirements
- getting adequate vitamin C
- eating adequate vitamin A (orange foods)
- consuming vitamin K rich vegetables (green foods)
- eating the correct amount of protein, not too much OR too little
- limiting dietary sodium
- limiting alcohol consumption
- smoking avoidance
- being physically active
Strengthen your gut health for eye health
New evidence supports that our gut bacteria also play a role in preventing macular degeneration. Every day we hear about how important our gut health is to overall health, and here is yet another example. Gut health is always improved when the diet is nutrient dense and those bacteria in your gut are fed healthy prebiotics. Prebiotic rich foods are the fuel for your gut bacteria. Fruits and vegetables are a typically some of the best prebiotic foods you can feed those gut bacteria. By “going green” and adding orange foods to your diet you will be feeding your gut bacteria a healthy diet.
Decrease your sodium
Lastly, you’ve always heard you should watch your sodium. This is a good recommendation for not just blood pressure, but your eye health as well. Health care providers know that too much salt or sodium can increase blood pressure. This may lead to increased intraocular pressure in the eyes which can worsen glaucoma. Excessive sodium may also be a risk factor for cataract formation. Eat more fresh, unprocessed foods at home (vs. in a restaurant) to easily lower your sodium intake.
Omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil
Research has not supported a clear preventative effect of these fats for cataracts, macular degeneration, or glaucoma. But, there was high hope that these fats could improve a common condition called dry eye syndrome. The syndrome is so common, that one 2017 reference states that 25% of visits to eye care providers is for dry eye disease. Unfortunately, a 2018 NIH study did not support this line of thinking. So, while these fatty acids cannot currently be recommended for dry eye, they are important to overall health. In fact, most Americans have too low of an intake of these fatty acids, so sound nutrition strategies would suggest getting these fats into the diet regardless of the impact on your eyes. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts.
A word on eye supplements
Although food is your best source of lutein and zeaxanthin, supplements are widely available. The American Optometric Association suggests a supplement with 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin. While there is no recommended intake for lutein and zeaxanthin, a supplement could be a good safeguard for those that aren’t consistently eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and/or are at risk for eye disease. Take supplements with a little bit of dietary fat to increase absorption.
Key points on nutrition for aging eyes
You can eat better today, for healthier vision in the future. Adequate nutrition for aging eyes includes plenty of green food and even green tea. Add plenty of orange foods, which are secretly green as well, and you are off to a good start. All those green and orange foods will also give you plenty of vitamin C. Make sure you are eating enough zinc by eating some good quality protein from meat, poultry, or dairy foods. Keep your food sources of vitamin E unprocessed and watch your sodium consumption. Make sure you strengthen your gut bacteria with plenty of fiber rich fruits and vegetables of all colors. And, remember that your bone health may be tied to your visual future. Eat right and stay active to keep your bones strong so you have a “clearer” future.
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