Most people know that diet is linked to health, but many don’t realise that very specific diet choices can reduce the risk of eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration.
As always, prevention is better than cure. Read on to discover how a group of antioxidants called the carotenoids can protect your eyes by lowering your risk of disease.
Carrots help you see in the dark, right?
This is not as crazy as it sounds. Carotenoids – the micro-nutrients found in carrots as well as other orange, red, yellow and dark green fruits and vegetables – are important for a healthy retina. In fact, the pigment in the most sensitive part of the retina – the macula – is made up of carotenoids. The more macular pigment you have, the lower the risk of developing several eye diseases. Studies have shown that people with lower dietary levels of carotenoids are at increased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Carotenoids and AMD
The biggest studies on age-related macular degeneration (called the AREDS studies) suggests that supplementation with two specific carotenoids – lutein and zeaxanthin – can reduce the risk of developing late stage AMD. These micro-nutrients can also improve the outcome of treatment for wet AMD and lengthen the time needed between retinal injection treatments.
What other eye diseases can they protect against?
These carotenoids also protect your crystalline lens against cataracts as well as reducing glare and enhancing quality of vision. Yellow pigment in the macular area also protects against the harmful effects of blue light by absorbing it.
How do I get more carotenoids though my diet?
The average person on a Western diet consumes less than 2mg of lutein and zeaxanthin daily. But you can boost these levels by regularly adding colourful and green leafy veggies to your diet. And while carrots do contain these nutrients, kale and spinach are particularly high!
Other goods sources are pistachio nuts, eggs, oranges, tomatoes, blueberries, lettuce, peas, edamame beans, corn and avocado. Try and incorporate some of them in to every meal.
These carotenoids are fat-soluble (not water soluble) so for best absorption into your body, you should consume them along with healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, eggs or nuts. Consuming fat (e.g. in a salad dressing or cooking oil) at the same meal as the carotenoids will increase the amount that reaches your eye (and other tissues). Eggs contain less lutein and zeaxanthin than many vegetables but because of the fat content in the egg, it can be better absorbed.
What about supplements?
You can add to your dietary intake of carotenoids by taking supplements containing lutein and zeaxanthin. During the course of a comprehensive eye examination, your optometrist will discuss your risk factors for diseases such as AMD, but if you’re in a high-risk category (e.g. if you’re a smoker, have a family history of AMD or have early clinical signs of this disease) you could benefit from both dietary and supplement sources of these anti-oxidants.
These are available as tablets taken daily. They also contain other micro-nutrients such as zinc and vitamin E, which have also been shown to reduce the risk of AMD.
What else can I do?
Diet is not the only risk factor for eye disease. While you can’t do anything about major risk factors such as getting older and family history, there are a few other things that can decrease your risk:
- Quit smoking – easier said than done but smoking is a big risk factor for AMD.
- Turn off your device! Some digital device companies (such as BenQ) have minimised blue light emissions from their screens but it’s still a good idea to have healthy, screen-free time when possible.