Healthy Food for the Eyes
If your eyes feel healthy, it is easy to assume they are healthy. But many eye problems, such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), do not have early warning signs. By the time symptoms appear, little can be done. Your body cannot repair damaged retinas, the light sensitive tissue responsible for sight. When it comes to the eyes, therefore, prevention, rather than treatment, is the key to good health. There are many ways to protect your vision, but a good diet may be the most effective. One study found that eating healthy food for the eyes may reduce your chance of developing eye problems by as much as 25 percent!
7 essential nutrients for healthy eyes
Carrots are not the only healthy food for the eyes. You need a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in order to maintain strong eyesight as you get older.
Vitamin A is not a single compound, but a group of organic molecules that supports vital organs. It is found in the heart, lungs, and kidneys, but most especially in the eyes, which contain more vitamin A than anywhere else in the body.
There are two types of vitamin A. The first is retinol, which is found mostly in animal products. It is pre-formed and can be used directly. The second is beta-carotene, which is found mostly in plants. A pre-cursor to vitamin A, it must be converted by the liver before it can be used.
Vitamin A keeps the surface of your eyes clear and hydrated. It protects the cornea (the outer covering of the eye) and the tear film, the thin layer of moisture that coats it. It is also a component of rhodopsin, a protein that allows you to detect color and see in low-light conditions.
People with vitamin A deficiency suffer dry eyes, night blindness, and retinopathy, a side effect of diabetes that damages the retina. They are also at higher risk of ARMD, the leading cause of vision loss in adults over 60.
Carrots are a popular source of vitamin A, but it can also be found in eggs, cheese, spinach, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, and whole milk.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, which means your body needs it to function but cannot make it on its own, so must get it through diet. Nerves, muscles, gray matter, and numerous other organs rely on omega-3, including your eyes. (Adipex)
The tear film the moisturizes your cornea is protected by a thin layer of oil that keeps it from evaporating. Omega-3 is a critical component of that layer. When the lipids (fatty acids) inside it become unstable, your tears evaporate too quickly, leaving your eyes irritated and sensitive to light.
Omega-3 also fights inflammation, a contributing factor in ARMD. It relieves fluid pressure inside the eye as well, reducing your risk of nerve damage and glaucoma. Parents worried about their child’s eyesight should feed them a diet rich in omega-3. It helps them develop sharper visual acuity.
Fatty-fish like salmon & sardines are particularly rich in omega-3. Non-meat sources include walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
Zeaxanthin & lutein
Zeaxanthin and lutein are potent antioxidants found in the retina, lens, and macula of the eye. They absorb the sun’s harsh ultraviolet rays, preventing them from damaging light-sensitive cells in your retina. According to at least one study, people with high levels of zeaxanthin and lutein have denser macular pigment, which lowers their odds of ARMD. (The macula is the central part of the retina, responsible for clear sight.)
Zeaxanthin and lutein also counteract free radicals. These unstable molecules attack your eye’s photoreceptors, specialized neurons that convert light into electrical signals for the brain. At the same time, they slow development of cataracts and inflammatory eye conditions.
Dark leafy greens like kale and spinach are some of the best sources of zeaxanthin and lutein. Green peas, pistachios, grapes, peppers, and eggs are high in them too.
Vitamin C does more than strengthen the immune system. It is also a powerful antioxidant that protects proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids from oxidative damage caused by free radicals.
There is strong evidence that, like other antioxidants, vitamin C lowers risk of chronic ocular conditions like cataracts and ARMD. It neutralizes reactive molecules inside the eye, which prevents them from weakening the retina and clouding the lens.
Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit are the fastest way to increase your intake of vitamin C. Bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, and spinach contain high concentrations as well.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and powerful antioxidant that supports healthy eye tissue. In people who have already begun to suffer from the early stages of ARMD, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study found that 25 percent of them could improve their eyesight by consuming vitamin E, along with other healthy food for the eyes.
Increase your vitamin E levels by eating more plants and seeds, specifically pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, avocado, and mangos.
The eye contains some of the highest concentrations of zinc in the human body. Certain enzymes within the eye cannot function without it. Together with vitamin A, it plays an important role in the formation of visual pigments such as melanin, which scatters ultraviolet light. It also absorbs free radicals before they can affect retina cells. Studies have shown that zinc supplements can slow the progress of ARMD (see the link above). Zinc deficiencies, on the other hand, are associated with blurry eyesight, cloudy cataracts, and poor night vision.
Chickpeas, black beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and red meat all contain significant amounts of zinc. Zinc supplements are also widely available but can interfere with some medications, so talk to your doctor before taking one.
Food vs. supplements
Despite abundant access to healthy food for the eyes, most Americans are not eating enough, which puts their long-term eyesight at risk. Processed food is partially to blame. Americans eat more of it than ever before. They are also older than ever before, which may be partially to blame. People absorb fewer nutrients as they get older, so even if they are eating healthy, they might not be getting enough. Supplements can help bridge the gap but consult a doctor before you start. Consuming too much of certain nutrients can be harmful.
A balanced diet is the cornerstone of a long and happy life. Check back regularly for more tips on healthy eating.
Jasmine El Nabli MS RDN is a Registered Dietitian who empowers and educates individuals through her scientific, holistic approach to health and happiness. With the right tools, skills, and knowledge, she shows people how to create healthy and sustainable eating habits through small changes to daily life.
Lewis Jackson writes about technology and healthcare. His work provides practical insight into modern medicine and healthy living.