Nutrition and Eye Health

Evidence Based
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Your diet has a significant impact on your vision and overall eye health. Eating the right 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 accumulates excess free radicals, creating an imbalance between free radicals and the antioxidants that neutralize them. This accelerates the aging process and increases inflammation in the body.

Your body generates free radicals from normal metabolic processes. However, there are external sources that contribute to free radical production, which include:

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

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect approximately 2 billion people worldwide. The most common deficiencies include vitamin A, zinc, folate, iron, and iodine.

Icon of an eyeball with a circle around it

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 in your diet:

Beta-carotene 

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


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Vitamin C

A powerful antioxidant that assists with essential functions such as tissue repair, collagen formation, and immune system function. Increasing vitamin C in your diet helps prevent macular degeneration, slows down cataract progression, and may be linked to a reduced risk for glaucoma.

Vitamin E

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

Lutein and zeaxanthin 

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. Lutein and zeaxanthin give certain foods their natural yellow or orange color.

Zinc 

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 and plays a role in macular degeneration prevention.

Selenium

Another mineral that has antioxidant properties and may protect your eyes from developing macular degeneration.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that our bodies do not produce essential fatty acids, so we must consume them in our diet. Some studies suggest that natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of progression in macular degeneration patients. Omega-3s also combat inflammation associated with dry eyes. 

Flavonoids 

Flavonoids are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergic. Flavonoids help prevent cataracts, macular degeneration, and inflammatory eye diseases. Some research suggests 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. 

Top Foods for Eye Health

In general, brightly colored fruits and vegetables are very nutritious. If you want to incorporate eye-healthy nutrients into your diet, try eating more of these foods: 

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

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Author: Melody Huang, O.D. | UPDATED April 22, 2020
Resources

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.

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.

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.

“FoodData Central.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, fdc.nal.usda.gov/.

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.

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.

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.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.

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