• Many people today struggle with eye health issues like dry eyes and poor vision
• We can promote better eye health by making specific food choices
• Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, astaxanthin and carotenoids have been linked to lower risk for eye issues and may protect our eyes into old age
• Lesser known strategies to promote better eye health may include hydration and getting enough zinc in our diet
Why should you care about your eye health?
Eyesight is one of the most important senses we have. Those who are sighted rely on vision not only for the pleasure of seeing beautiful sunsets or works of art, but also to discern danger, help perform many tasks and make sense of the world around us. Whether it’s fatigue, eye strain, poor visual acuity, dry eye syndrome, cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration, issues that affect our ability to see or focus can have a huge impact on our quality of life and in many cases may reduce our ability to carry out basic functions. Many people who are spending more and more time in front of a computer, especially over the past couple years, can attest that their vision has deteriorated. Those who have degenerative eye diseases in their family may be seeking ways to prevent or slow down its progression. The good news is that there are a variety of actions we can take, one of which begins with what’s on our dinner plate.
What does diet have to do with eye health?
Like most organs in the body, eyes can be affected by the foods we consume. The blood that flows through our arteries and veins, influenced by diet, supplies our eyes with the nutrients that help them to function well. So, what we eat, or don’t eat, matters to the overall health of these optic globes. Research indicates that those who consume more fruits and vegetables tend to have fewer degenerative eye diseases and age-related issues with vision. (London et al) Additionally, numerous conditions related to the health of the eyes may be improved with the consistent intake of a variety of nutrients, including those that support a healthy gut microbiome. (Rowan et al)
Which specific nutrients help eye health?
As with most issues involving our health, it’s the overall eating pattern that matters most. Focusing on just one nutrient (bring in the carrot!) known to support eye health is not going to prevent or solve the problem if the rest of the diet is of poor quality. That being said, below are some of the key nutrients to consider including as you work to take excellent care of those peepers.
1. Omega-3 Fats
Evidence has demonstrated that two important types of Omega 3 fatty acids “EPA” (eicosapentanoic acid) and “DHA” (docosahexanoic acid, which is found in the retina) may help to preserve vision, lower the risk of diabetic retinopathy (Sala et al) and reduce eye dryness. (Ng et al) These are found in oily fish like sardines, anchovies and salmon as well as in walnuts, chia, hemp and flax seeds, although some research indicates that the amount in plant based foods may be less due to conversion issues. (Harvard Health Publishing) Fish oil supplements or, for those who follow plant based eating, algae oil or flaxseed oil supplements may also be an option. An added benefit of these beneficial fats are their positive effects on skin health, (Sawada et al) Seeking creative ideas? Walnuts and hemp seeds make a great addition to breakfast “grain bowls.” Flaxseed oil can be part of a salad dressing. And anchovies give salad or pasta dishes a lovely extra salty kick!
These protective plant chemicals found in bright orange and dark leafy green vegetables have been touted for their ability to support healthy eyesight, not only because they exert antioxidant effects but because, specifically, the compound beta carotene gets converted to Vitamin A which is key for supporting vision. Two stars of the carotenoid family Lutein and Zeaxanthin been shown in the research to have the greatest impact. Found in dark leafy greens, like kale and collards, but also in egg yolks, (depending on the diet of the hen) these powerful phytochemicals not only provide protection from visual fatigue, age-related macular degeneration (Liu et al) and cataracts, (American Optometric Association ) but may also help absorb blue light!
The red pigment, Asthaxanthin is another member of the carotenoid family, found in crustaceans like shrimp and lobster as well as micro-algae, which has demonstrated potential to both prevent and address a number of ocular diseases. (Giannaccare et al) So, make a sweet potato and shrimp stew, sauté a bunch of collards, or roast up some carrots for a spectrum of carotenoid input. Including a fat source is beneficial as well since it improves absorption. Supplements can also be a way to access these helpful compounds.
3. Vitamins C, E and D:
The eyes are well-served by the presence of antioxidants in the diet, so ample amounts of Vitamins C and E are important to include in meals. (Rasmussen et al) The fluid that surrounds the eyes has high concentrations of Vitamin C which is directly influenced by the food sources we consume, such as kiwi and citrus fruits, but also green peppers and broccoli. Fat soluble Vitamin E plays a key role in helping to protect essential fatty acids (mentioned above) from oxidation, so including foods like nuts, seeds and avocado can help to boost levels in the body. Studies indicate that people with a lower antioxidant status may have a higher risk of cataracts. Research has also highlighted the value of optimal Vitamin D status in eye health. Lower levels of this essential vitamin have been associated with higher risk for a number of ocular diseases, from dry eye syndrome to macular degeneration. (Chan et al) Food sources of vitamin D are limited but include oily fish, mushrooms, and eggs. Many find that a supplement is necessary for achieving optimal levels. In the meantime, whipping up a frittata or a favorite egg dish with avocado, red peppers and mushrooms may help with giving a vitamin-rich boost.