Keeping Your Eyes Healthy – What Are Important Foods for Eye Health?

Eye Chart

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my eye doctor’s office while she showed me a picture of the “inside of my eyes”.  I had just gone in for my annual exam but we had done some extra screening because I had some “floaters” a few months ago.

If you’ve never had “floaters”, well, they are little black specs that kind of “float” through your eye. It was strange, but they went away after a day, so I didn’t think much more about it. However, when I mentioned it to her, she suggested that we do some extra tests just in case.

She showed me the diagrams from the interior pictures they took and wow, I saw a lot of “yellow” and “red” areas on the image of my left eye that indicated I might have some inflammation in the retina.  You guessed it – the eye that had the floaters. YIKES!  

Well, good news, after a trip to a retinal specialist, it’s nothing to worry about, my eye is fine.  But this experience really made me take a step back and think about the health of my eyes and what I could do to protect them. 

My father had Age-Related Macular Degeneration so I’m at a high risk to develop it. Keeping my eyes healthy is really important and I want to do whatever I can to prevent or at least delay the onset of it. My doctor knew I was a dietitian but we still discussed the foods that can help prevent or at least delay age-related eye disease.   

What are Key Nutrients for Eye Health?

There are some key foods and nutrients that are really important for maintaining the health of your eyes.  Many of which have other health benefits as well, but let’s just focus on your eyes for now.  The other benefits these foods provide, well that’s just a bonus.

So which nutrients are important? There was a major study that looked at age related eye diseases, particularly Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) and the development of cataracts.  AMD is the main reason for blindness or loss of vision in the elderly and the development of cataracts is a normal occurrence as we get older.   

The AREDS study was done to see if the intake of a variety of nutrients could slow the development of either issue. As it turns out, there are definitely some nutritional changes we can make and nutrients we should focus on that can at least slow the development of AMD.(1)

The nutrients they looked at and found to have some benefit include:

  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids
  • Lutein
  • Zeaxanthin
  • Beta Carotene
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc

How does Food Help your Eye Health?

First, one of the main reasons for AMD is oxidative stress, and the best way to combat this is through your diet.  A diet rich in antioxidants will help combat oxidation. Antioxidants act as a protective shield around the cells of your eye.  It’s kind of like an iron railing – exposed to the elements without protection, it rusts.  If you were to put a protective coating on it, the rust development would at least be delayed.  This is kind of how antioxidants work.

In addition, the nutrients in many foods play an important role in the structure of your eyes and moisture.  

The Omega 3 fatty acid, DHA is found in the retina and assists in eye development as well as protecting it from damage.  About 60% of the lipid component of your retinal membrane is made up of DHA.  (2)  People who eat fatty fish on a regular basis seem to have lower rates of AMD.  

The carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin are found in the macula of the eye and are important for protecting from photo-oxidative damage and filtering blue light.  People who have diets high in these healthy carotenoids had a 40% lowered risk of AMD (3).   High intakes of other carotenoids including beta-carotene were found to have 25-30% reduced risk as well.  

The other nutrient that is found in the retina and macular area is zinc. It seems to have a role in forming the protein in our eyes that allows us to see in low light situations.  It may also be able to reduce inflammation that can lead to AMD.  

What Are Important Foods For Eye Health?

There are a variety of foods that are rich in these nutrients that help keep your eyes healthy and vision strong. Following a Mediterranean Diet is a great place to start.  This diet is really more of a lifestyle as well, recommending increased physical activity, which has also been shown to be important in preventing eye related diseases.  

A basket full of fresh vegetables
Basket of fresh vegetables

So, what are foods that are good for eye health? Green leafy vegetables are the most concentrated sources of lutein and zeaxanthin and these seem to have the most impact on at least delaying the onset of AMD.  Beet greens, kale, spinach are some of the best, but even broccoli and Brussels sprouts have some of these nutrients.

Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna and mackerel are your best sources of DHA. This is the omega 3 fatty acid found in your eyes. Seafood is also one of the best places to find zinc.  Yellow and green fruits and vegetables, like avocado, peppers, and squash are also great sources of antioxidants lutein and beta-carotene.    

Other foods are nuts and seeds – both are rich in another type of omega 3 fatty acid that is converted to DHA. They are also rich in Vitamin E, which has antioxidant properties and protects against free radical formation (that rust on the railing). Nuts and seeds also contain zinc that helps us see in low light situations.

Citrus fruits that are rich in Vitamin C may also help protect against AMD. Vitamin C. We know Vitamin C is good for a strong immune system but it may have other roles in decreasing inflammation.

What Else Can You Do to Protect Your Vision?

Eating a variety of food, that provides all those healthy vitamins, antioxidants, and omega 3 fatty acids, will help support the structure of your eyes, protect against macular degeneration and support your retina.  There are a number of other lifestyle habits that will keep your eyes healthy. 

  • Get an annual eye exam
  • Wear Sunglasses anytime you are out in the sun (this is the best way to slow the development of cataracts!)
  • Wear a brimmed hat when you are outside where there might be a glare (the beach)
  • Stop smoking if you are a smoker, or don’t start if you aren’t!
  • Take a multivitamin 

What is one thing you can do to improve the health of your eyes?  Tell me below in the comments.  

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  1. Pingback: The Perfect Fall Brussel Sprout Salad - An Easy Side - Laura M. Ali, MS, RDN, LDN

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