Eye health linked to… drugs? Or nutrients.

Did you know: What you eat affects the health of your eyes.  And eye problems common in older people are also linked to specific food components.

nutrition is critical for healthy eyes

These facts might seem obvious, yet the ads on TV and other mass media loudly imply that prescription drugs are the solution to these eye diseases.  No mention of nutrition at all.  The intended conclusion: there’s nothing you, the consumer, can do about declining vision except take prescription drugs.  I find this sooooo annoying.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) currently affects up to 30 million people around the globe, and incidence could triple in the next 15 years, as more people age.  The macula is a yellow spot on the retina.  The yellow color comes from the high content of carotenoid pigments, like lutein and zeaxanthin.  And where do we get those pigments?  From food.  From dark green or yellow/orange vegetables and fruits.  It turns out the highly pigmented macula functions like a little sunscreen over the retina, protecting it from damaging light rays.

Those pigments need constant replacement, as they get used up protecting your eyes.  If you don’t eat many carotenoid-containing vegetables and fruits over the course of your life, you gradually lose the protection.  Then, light can get through and damage the retina, causing gradual vision loss.  Central vision loss is most acute, leaving only peripheral vision.

There is plenty of data linking high intake of these pigments (from food) to decreased risk for this disease.  But here’s one thing we don’t have so far: proof that eating more pigment-contain foods actually prevents AMD, or reverses it if it’s already started.  How could researchers prove that?  They would need to study a large population for decades, into old age when AMD develops.  Half the subjects would be told to eat a diet low in colorful fruits and vegetables.  Who would do that knowing they might develop failing vision?  How could the researchers guarantee that a subject would stick to such a diet for decades.  So the logistics of a study that could prove the beneficial effect are complicated.

Another way to address the question is to give half the subjects in a study supplements of key pigments like lutein, zeaxanthin and others.  One such study is ongoing through 2013, after which some results can be expected.  But a study of limited years may not give a clear picture of the preventive impact of a long-term healthy diet, rich in highly pigmented vegetables and fruits.

Meanwhile, which foods are the best sources of lutein and other pigments?  While most dark colored vegetables and fruits have some of these pigments (or others), these have some of the highest levels:

  • kale
  • spinach
  • chard and other greens
  • peppers
  • arugula and dark green lettuces
  • peas
  • egg yolk
  • broccoli
  • brussel sprouts
  • tomatoes
  • zucchini (with dark green skin left on)
  • carrots
  • asparagus
  • green beans

If it turns out the eye health benefits of food pigments are proven, expect food manufacturers to rush to fortify all kinds of foods with tiny amounts of some, so they can scream “Lutein!!” or “Eye Health!!!” on the label, and grab that marketing Health Halo.  If you see a claim like that, check the dose.   Roughly 1/2 cup of boiled chopped spinach has over 15,000 micrograms of lutein plus zeaxanthin.  A meal bar or cereal with 50 micrograms added just can’t compete with that.

Copyright: All content © 2010-2018 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.