Eat Well to Be Well: Focus on food for better vision

103013-broccolimix-eyeMy dad has a 95-year-old cousin who is as spry of an elder as you will find – she lives alone, her mind is sharp and she walks with ease. The only ailment slowing her down, limiting her ability to read, sew and drive a car, is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In the United States, 11 million people have some form of AMD. Most likely you know of someone, relative or friend, who has this condition. It’s the second-highest cause of irreversible blindness in the world and a leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age and older.

Age-related macular degeneration is a life-altering, chronic eye disease that gradually destroys the macula, a small region in the center of the retina, responsible for clear central vision. This leads to vision loss in the center of your field of vision. Peripheral vision is usually not affected. To get a better understanding of what people with AMD are experiencing, place your fist at the bridge of your nose so everywhere you look is a blind spot. People with AMD have difficulty reading, driving, recognizing faces and seeing the world in color.

There are two forms of AMD: dry and wet. Ninety percent of people with AMD have the dry form. It is characterized by a slow degeneration of the macula with a slower progression to vision loss. Wet AMD progresses to a more advanced stage of severe vision loss since it causes swelling and rapid damage to the macula. Some risk factors for AMD include:

  • Age – As you age the risk for developing AMD increases, particularly after age 50. It is most common in people older than 65.
  • Family history – People with family members who have AMD are at a higher risk of developing the disease.
  • Race – AMD is more common in whites (Caucasians).
  • Smoking – You are twice as likely to develop AMD if you smoke compared to nonsmokers.

Several of the above mentioned risk factors you have no control over, but there is one risk factor that you do – your diet. Eating a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables that contain key nutrients for eye health, is another risk factor that can lead to AMD.

Evidence that eating high amounts of certain nutrients helps to prevent or slow the progression of AMD was provided by a large, randomized clinical trial conducted by the National Eye Institute in the early 1990s. Just this past May, a second study was completed by the National Eye Institute called the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), which confirmed the role of supplements in preventing advanced AMD. In fact, these studies established AMD as a “nutrition responsive disorder.” Currently, there are supplements geared specifically for eye health and the prevention or progression of AMD. These supplements contain two key nutrients, lutein (10 mg) and zeaxanthin (2 mg), which have been found to lessen the likelihood of developing AMD with no apparent side effects from long-term use.

Does this mean the best way to obtain these two nutrients, lutein and zeaxanthin, is from taking a supplement? The answer is no. The typical American diet is low in the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin. Even though taking a supplement containing these two nutrients makes our blood levels of them go up, we don’t want to rely on a supplement alone. Many people believe taking a supplement makes up for eating a poor diet. Our bodies are designed to eat food, thus we still need nutrients from eating whole food. Not only does eating whole food provide us with various nutrients, it also contains other substances such as antioxidants and phytochemicals that may have a beneficial effect on preventing macular degeneration.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are important for eye health as they are found in high concentrations in the macula. Acting as antioxidants, they protect the eye from environmental damage caused by smoking, pollutants and sun exposure. Key food sources of lutein and zeaxanthin are dark green, leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens and romaine lettuce. Other sources include corn, peas and eggs.

Besides lutein and zeaxanthin, additional key nutrients for good eye health include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids – These polyunsaturated fatty acids support eye health by preventing arterial plaque buildup and help to reduce inflammation and damage to blood vessels and cells. Excellent food sources include cold water fish such as wild salmon, sardines, tuna, herring or cod liver oil. Plant sources are found in walnuts, flaxseeds and dark green vegetables.
  • Zinc – This mineral is concentrated in the retina and is important in getting vitamin A from the liver to the retina to produce melanin, a protective pigment in the eye. Good food sources are red meat, poultry, pork, seafood, eggs, nuts, wheat germ and tofu.
  • Vitamin C – This antioxidant slows the progression of AMD in addition to lowering the risk of developing cataracts. All cells of our body depend on vitamin C, including our eyes where it is actively concentrated in the tissue. It also supports the health of ocular blood vessels. The best food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes. Other sources include tomatoes, potatoes, spinach and peppers such as green, red and orange.
  • Vitamin E – This powerful antioxidant helps protect the cells of our eyes from damage caused by free radicals which are unstable molecules, which could lead to the breakdown of healthy tissue. Rich food sources are almonds, peanuts, fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes and vegetable oils.

A 2011 Harris survey found that 8 out of 10 Americans fear losing their vision – more than any other sense. Any form of vision loss is devastating but there are steps we can take today to prevent that from happening. Have an annual eye exam, take a supplement for eye health that contains lutein and zeaxanthin in addition to eating a diet rich in lutein, zeaxanthin, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and vitamins C and E. Doing so improves your chance of a clear, more in-focus future.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches a course called Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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