By Ruth Ann Clayton, RD
Usually when you think about the impact of foods on your health, you think about your heart, your weight, or even disease prevention. But now, research is revealing the role of certain key nutrients in the health of your eyes.
The issue of eye health is becoming more widely discussed due to the aging baby boomer generation. Nutrition is only one component as factors such as genetics and age must be considered when conditions such as Age-related Macular Degeneration, cataracts and other eye ailments are discussed. But research does back up the need for key nutrients in eye health.
Perhaps your mother told you to eat your carrots. She said that because vitamin A and beta carotene are critical to eye health. However, another related carotenoid just as crucial to eye health is lutein. A potent antioxidant, lutein nourishes and protects and helps form the yellow colored pigment in the macula of the retina. Absorbing the ultraviolet and other harmful sun glare components is a major protective job of a healthy retina that is fed by lutein. Lutein increases the macular pigment thus making it safely absorb light which can potentially cause damage. Lutein is also required for color vision and eye lubrication. Working closely with lutein is zeaxanthin, another carotenoid which gives foods like paprika and saffron their color. Lutein and zeaxanthin are most often found together in the same foods and supplements.
You can increase lutein and zeaxanthin in your diet with food sources including egg yolk, pistachios, carrots, corn, green peas, Brussels sprouts and zucchini. You might have guessed it’s the yellow and green foods, especially dark greens like kale, spinach, collard greens and broccoli which will supply the most of these eye nutrients. As lutein and zeaxanthin are fat soluble nutrients, you will obtain the best absorption by adding some fat into the same meal.
The American Optometric Association notes that most recent studies show a benefit with 10 mg/day of lutein and 2 mg/day of zeaxanthin. There are no recommended daily allowances and no upper limits set for either nutrient. The average American diet is thought to contain only 2 mg/day of lutein and insufficient zeaxanthin, most likely due to a low intake of vegetables.
Lutein and zeaxanthin do not stand alone in the category of important eye nutrients. In addition to vitamin A the list would also include vitamin C, vitamin E, omega 3 essential fatty acids and zinc.
Vitamin C and vitamin E are both potent antioxidants guarding the eye against damage from free radicals. One benefit of vitamin C is the support of healthy blood vessels in the eye. Adding citrus fruits, strawberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, green or red peppers, leafy greens and tomatoes can increase your dietary vitamin C. Research, using 400 IU/day of vitamin E, suggests it is important in preventing oxidation and supporting capillary walls in the eye as it works with other eye nutrients.
Omega 3 essential fatty acids, especially DHA, which are critical to eye and brain development when you are an infant, continue to be important as you age. Add omega 3 foods including salmon, tuna, mackerel, other fatty fish, flax oil, chia, and hemp or an omega 3 supplement each day to insure an adequate intake. An appropriate amount for eye health would be 1,000 mg/day of omega 3.
The trace mineral zinc has been studied for its role in transporting Vitamin A from the liver to the retina. It is a “helper mineral” for the eyes. Good sources of zinc include beef, pork, oysters, salmon, poultry and eggs. The RDA for zinc is 11 mg/day. The exact amount for eye health has not been determined.
The foods you consume each day should be considered not only for energy but for eye nourishment. Studies show a definite benefit from lutein, zeaxanthin and its companion nutrients Vitamins A, C, and E, omega 3 fatty acids and the mineral zinc. This list is not all inclusive and is in no way a cure for eye ailments, but a lack of these eye nutrients can have a detrimental effect. So, as you think about your diet, think not only of your heart or your weight, but consider your eyes as well. And eat your carrots!
Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.
As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.