Guest blogger Audrey Demmitt, RN, BSN, is a nurse diabetic educator, VisionAware Peer Advisor, AFB Career Connect mentor, and author of the VisionAware multi-part blog series on diabetes and diabetes education.
At age 25, Audrey was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and continued to work as a nurse for 30 years with her visual impairment.
She has worked as an Adjustment to Blindness Counselor and Diabetic Educator for Vision Rehabilitation Services of Georgia and as a school nurse providing in-service training for school staff and developing care plans for newly-diagnosed students and their families.
Nutrition and Eye Health: the Basics
During Healthy Aging Month, it’s appropriate to emphasize the link between nutrition and your eyes, including research studies that demonstrate a clear connection between good nutrition and eye health. Two landmark clinical trials, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and AREDS2, provided evidence that a combination of specific nutrients in specific amounts reduced the risk of developing advanced AMD in participants who had already-existing moderate to advanced dry or wet macular degeneration (AMD).
Along with this growing evidence that specific nutrients have a positive and protective effect on eye health are growing numbers of nutritional supplements that offer a variety of formulas for healthy eyes. We all want to preserve our vision, but it can be confusing and overwhelming to interpret research studies and determine what is truly best for our individual situations.
Foods, Nutrients, and Eye Health
When it comes to nutrition, it is best to get your nutrients from foods. The good news is we have many wholesome foods available to us. It is all about making healthy choices.
Choosing the freshest forms of colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, whole grains and nuts, and low-fat dairy and eggs will ensure a diet rich in many of the nutrients that promote healthy eyes and preserve vision.
Here is a list of nutrients that play a beneficial role in keeping our eyes healthy:
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
- These important antioxidants may reduce the risk of chronic eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration. They protect against the damaging effects of sunlight, cigarette smoke, and air pollution. Zeaxanthin appears to be the most active antioxidant in the macula specifically.
- Foods to eat: green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and collards. Also found in eggs, broccoli, pumpkin, and bright-colored fruits like kiwi and grapes. The richest source of zeaxanthin is goji berries (also called wolfberries), which are available in health food and some grocery stores, in dried form and in juices and teas.
- Please note: According to WebMD, goji berries could interact with certain drugs, including those for diabetes, blood pressure, and blood thinners. If you take any of these drugs, talk with your doctor before consuming goji berries in any form.
- The A vitamins, which include beta-carotene, help the retina, cornea, and other eye tissues to function properly. They are known for helping with night vision.
- Foods to eat: beef liver, fish, milk, eggs, spinach, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and carrots.
- This antioxidant may lower the risk of developing cataracts and slow the progression of AMD.
- Foods to eat: oranges, berries, red and green peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, papaya, cantaloupe, and Brussels sprouts.
- This powerful antioxidant seems to protect cells of the eyes from the damage caused by free radicals, which destroy healthy tissue.
- Foods to eat: sweet potatoes, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, wheat germ oil, fortified cereals, vegetable oils, and peanut butter
Essential Fatty Acids
- Fats are essential in the diet. There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids: the plant-based ALA and the oily fish-based EPA and DHA. They play an important role in visual development and retinal function. Low levels of DHA, found in the retina, have been linked to dry eye syndrome.
- Foods to eat: tuna, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout, green vegetables, vegetable oils, and walnuts.
- This essential trace mineral helps bring vitamin A from the liver to the retina in order to produce melanin, a protective pigment in the eyes. It is found in high concentrations in the retina and the vascular layer underneath the retina.
- Foods to eat: eggs, oysters, crab legs, red meat, poultry, baked beans, and whole grains.
More about Nutritious Foods from Lylas G. Mogk, M.D.
Dr. Mogk is the author of Age-Related Macular Degeneration on the VisionAware website and founding director of the Center for Vision Rehabilitation and Research, part of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan. Here are her recommendations:
Studies suggest that eating antioxidant-rich foods, such as fresh fruits and dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collard greens, and spinach, for example), may delay the onset or reduce the severity of dry AMD. These types of vegetables contain lutein, which may protect the macula from sun damage, just as it protects the leaves of these vegetables from sun damage.
Eating at least one serving of fatty fish per week may also delay the onset or reduce the severity of AMD. These types of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help decrease inflammation and promote eye health.
Avoid packaged foods as much as possible. It’s important to keep a balance between omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids in our diets. Virtually every food in a package contains omega-6 fatty acids in the form of vegetable oil. We need to increase our intake of omega-3s and decrease our intake of omega-6s.
Avoid artificial fats. Low-fat foods are good options if they’ve achieved their low-fat status through a process that physically removes the fat. Skim milk and low fat cottage cheese are examples of these types of good low-fat foods.
A low-fat cookie or a no-fat cake, however, is a nutritional contradiction. Usually a low-fat or no-fat label on baked goods doesn’t mean less fat was used in the production of the food, but that an artificial fat was used, usually partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. These types of fats are artificial ingredients made in a laboratory and our bodies can’t metabolize them. So it’s best to eat real cookies – just don’t eat the whole dozen!
More from Audrey: When to Use Supplements
Supplementation may be necessary when the diet is inadequate or in cases in which a disease process already exists. Some nutrients are actually toxic to the body in large amounts, and “more is not always better.” And there are some nutritional supplements that may interact with medications and cause problems. So if you are considering a nutritional supplement for your eyes, it is important to talk to your eye doctor and discuss which formula is best suited for your overall health.
Maintaining a healthy diet and body weight also has protective benefits against diseases that can cause vision loss, such as diabetes, stroke, and eye vessel occlusions. Aging eyes need good nutrition. This will require more than nibbling on vegetables! Begin by including the healthy foods listed above in your diet whenever possible. Eat the foods that will keep your eyes happy and improve your quality of life.