Updated on 

November 11, 2021

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Nutrition and Eye Health

Your diet has a significant impact on your vision and overall eye health.

Eating the proper nutrients helps reduce your risk for eye diseases such as:

  • Cataracts
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Dry eye 
  • Glaucoma
  • Diabetic retinopathy

These eye conditions tend to affect older adults. In general, many age-related diseases occur from long-term oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress occurs when your body collects excess free radicals. This process creates an imbalance between free radicals and the antioxidants that neutralize them. It also quickens the aging process and increases inflammation.

Your body generates free radicals from normal metabolic processes.

However, there are external sources that contribute to free radical production, including:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Alcohol 
  • Air pollution
  • Toxic chemicals (such as household cleaners or pesticides)
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Processed meats (such as salami or ham)
  • Refined sugars (such as high-fructose corn syrup)
  • Radiation (such as x-rays)

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect approximately two billion people worldwide.9

The most common deficiencies include:

  • Vitamin A
  • Zinc
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Iodine

Impact of Diet and Nutrition on the Eyes

Consuming powerful antioxidants and other nutrients is an excellent way to combat free radicals and protect your eye health.

There are many benefits to adding these nutrients to your diet:

Beta-carotene 

Beta-carotene is an orange pigment found in many fruits and vegetables. Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A.

This antioxidant protects your corneal health and prevents dry eyes.

A combination of beta-carotene with vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and copper could slow the progression of macular degeneration.10 A deficiency in vitamin A may cause night blindness.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that assists with essential functions such as:

  • Tissue repair
  • Collagen formation
  • Immune system function

Increasing vitamin C in your diet helps:

  • Prevent macular degeneration
  • Slow down cataract progression
  • Reduce the risk for glaucoma

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that we can only get through our diets. The vitamin may play a role in delaying the onset of cataracts and reducing your risk of macular degeneration.

Lutein and zeaxanthin 

Lutein and zeaxanthin are highly pigmented antioxidants that protect your eyes from blue light damage.

The macula contains high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin. These pigments protect the macula from oxidative damage that can lead to macular degeneration.

Research suggests these nutrients also reduce the risk of cataract formation.11 Lutein and zeaxanthin give certain foods their natural yellow or orange color.

Zinc 

Zinc is a mineral that helps your body metabolize vitamin A.

Your retina contains high concentrations of zinc. This mineral enables you to maintain normal night vision. It also plays a role in macular degeneration prevention.

Selenium

Selenium is another mineral that has antioxidant properties. It may protect your eyes from macular degeneration.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. Our bodies do not produce essential fatty acids, so we have to include them in our diets.

Some studies suggest that natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of progression in macular degeneration patients.12

Omega-3s also combat inflammation associated with dry eyes. 

Flavonoids 

Flavonoids are:

  • Antioxidant-rich
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anti-allergic

They help prevent:

  • Cataracts
  • Macular degeneration
  • Inflammatory eye diseases

These compounds can reduce your risk of glaucoma. Flavonoids may also play a role in reducing oxidative stress related to diabetic retinopathy.

To defer the effects of age-related eye diseases as much as possible, avoid free radical sources, and make healthy dietary changes. Although vitamin supplements are helpful, getting nutrients from a natural food source is best. 

13 Top Foods for Eye Health

In general, brightly colored fruits and vegetables are very nutritious.

If you want to include eye-healthy nutrients into your diet, try eating more of these foods: 

  1. Sweet potatoes, sweet bell peppers (orange, yellow, or red), and carrots are rich in beta-carotene and contain some vitamin C.
  2. Dark leafy greens are rich in lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E. For example, spinach, kale, mustard greens, and collard greens.
  3. Squash vegetables contain lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin A, and vitamin C. For example, pumpkin, yellow squash, butternut squash, and zucchini.
  4. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts have several eye-healthy nutrients. For example, lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. 
  5. Nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts, or sunflower seeds, are high in vitamin E.
  6. Oysters are very high in zinc. Beef and pork also contain some zinc. All of these foods also contain selenium.
  7. Legumes an excellent vegetarian source of zinc and selenium. For example, chickpeas and lentils.
  8. Fish contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. The best sources are fatty, oily fishes. For example, salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and sardines.
  9. Seaweed, flaxseed, hemp seeds, and chia seeds are also natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids if you prefer vegetarian options. 
  10. Tea contains many flavonoids. Green tea is particularly high in flavonoids. However, black, white, and oolong tea also offer some benefits.
  11. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C and flavonoids. For example, oranges, lemons, and grapefruit.
  12. Seafood is abundant in selenium. For example, yellowfin tuna, crab, shrimp, oysters, and salmon.
  13. Eggs contain selenium, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin E. Egg yolks contain a high amount of lutein and zeaxanthin. You can also purchase enriched eggs that are higher in omega-3s.

Read More: How to Improve Your Eyesight

12 Cited Research Articles
  1. (1) Al Owaifeer, Adi M, and Abdulaziz A Al Taisan. “The Role of Diet in Glaucoma: A Review of the Current Evidence.Ophthalmology and Therapy, vol. 7, no. 1, 8 Feb. 2018, pp. 19–31., doi:10.1007/s40123-018-0120-3.
  2. (2) Bailey, Regan L., et al. “The Epidemiology of Global Micronutrient Deficiencies.Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 66, no. supp 2, June 2015, pp. 22–33., doi:10.1159/000371618.
  3. (3) Bungau, Simona, et al. “Health Benefits of Polyphenols and Carotenoids in Age-Related Eye Diseases.Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, vol. 2019, 12 Feb. 2019, pp. 1–22., doi:10.1155/2019/9783429.
  4. (4) “FoodData Central.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, fdc.nal.usda.gov/.
  5. (5) Gopinath, Bamini, et al. “Dietary Flavonoids and the Prevalence and 15-y Incidence of Age-Related Macular Degeneration.The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 108, no. 2, 6 July 2018, pp. 381–387., doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy114.
  6. (6) Johnson, Elizabeth J, and Helen M Rasmussen. “Nutrients for the Aging Eye.Clinical Interventions in Aging, vol. 8, 19 June 2013, pp. 741–748., doi:10.2147/cia.s45399.
  7. (7) Khoo, Hock, et al. “Nutrients for Prevention of Macular Degeneration and Eye-Related Diseases.” Antioxidants, vol. 8, no. 4, 2 Apr. 2019, p. 85., doi:10.3390/antiox8040085.
  8. (8) Liguori, Ilaria, et al. “Oxidative Stress, Aging, and Diseases.Clinical Interventions in Aging, vol. 13, 26 Apr. 2018, pp. 757–772., doi:10.2147/cia.s158513.
  9. (9) The Global Hidden Hunger Indices and Maps: An Advocacy Tool for Action, Reliefweb, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
  10. (10) Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group. “A randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of high-dose supplementation with vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and zinc for age-related macular degeneration and vision loss: AREDS report no. 8.” Archives of ophthalmology (Chicago, Ill. : 1960) vol. 119,10 (2001)
  11. (11) Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2) Research Group et al. “Lutein/zeaxanthin for the treatment of age-related cataract: AREDS2 randomized trial report no. 4.” JAMA ophthalmology vol. 131,7 (2013): 843-50
  12. (12) Lawrenson, John G, and Jennifer R Evans. “Omega 3 fatty acids for preventing or slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration.” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews vol. 2015,4 CD010015. 9 Apr. 2015
Melody Huang is an optometrist and freelance health writer. Through her writing, Dr. Huang enjoys educating patients on how to lead healthier and happier lives. She also has an interest in Eastern medicine practices and learning about integrative medicine. When she’s not working, Dr. Huang loves reviewing new skin care products, trying interesting food recipes, or hanging with her adopted cats.
https://www.visioncenter.org/author/melody/
Author: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.  | UPDATED November 11, 2021
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