Our eyes are the windows to our soul, the saying goes. Yet we so often take our eye health for granted. Unlike skincare or body care, which we include in our routines as a matter of course, few of us take steps to protect our eyes. Luckily, a few small swaps in your diet can help you keep your eyes healthy. Here are the best foods for eye health.January 13, 2021 10:37 am
What issues can you protect your eyes against?
Over 250 million people worldwide suffer from some kind of sight loss. Problems related to vision are particularly prevalent in older people.
The most common eye conditions which affect vision are cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. The macula is the central part of your retina, which is responsible for sharp definition. In the UK, age-related macular degeneration accounts for about 50% of all sight loss.(1)
While there are lots of different factors which can lead to eye conditions, scientists have noted that several of them seem to be related to oxidative stress.
According to a recent review of scientific literature around nutrition and eye health, your eyes are particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage.(1)
This is because they consume a lot of oxygen during their normal functioning, contain a lot of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and because they’re regularly exposed to ‘high energy visible light’.
The review suggests that, as oxidative stress seems to be a risk factor for eye diseases, a diet high in antioxidants may protect you against some of the most common conditions.
What’s the evidence for preventing eye disease with nutrition?
There have been a number of scientific studies looking into whether certain nutrients can help with eye disease.
The US National Eye Institute performed a study to see what effect supplementing people’s diets with nutrients including copper, zinc, vitamins C and E and beta-carotene had. They found that the risk of age-related macular degeneration was reduced by around 25%.(2)
It’s also thought that vitamins C and E might be able to protect against cataracts. However, so far clinical trials have not been able to produce conclusive results. A review of the study suggested that participants may need to follow a diet rich in these nutrients for longer than the study period to see results.(1)
While there is no one nutrient that protects against eye problems, it seems that several nutrients may work together to provide some protection.
Fortunately, some of these nutrients can be found in the same types of food, making it easy to include some of the best foods for eye health in your diet.
Which nutrients are needed for eye health?
Studies which have produced positive results in terms of eye health tend to include the following nutrients:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Zinc (sometimes with copper)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Lutein and zeaxanthin
Each of these nutrients plays a different role in the body and it appears that they work in synergy to protect your eyes.
"While there is no one nutrient that protects against eye problems, it seems that several nutrients may work together to provide some protection. Fortunately, some of these nutrients can be found in the same types of food, making it easy to include some of the best foods for eye health in your diet."
Vitamins C and E
Both vitamins C and E are powerful antioxidants. As we know, antioxidant protection is particularly important in the eye.
Vitamin E itself is, surprisingly, not a single nutrient. Rather, the term ‘vitamin E’ covers eight different antioxidants. One of these, α-Tocopherol, prevents free radicals from setting off a chain reaction of lipid oxidation (damage to fatty molecules). This is very important in the eye, as the retina is packed full of fatty acids.
However, these vitamins also work together.
Usually, when α-Tocopherol neutralises a free radical, it undergoes a chemical change which makes it lose its antioxidant capacity.
In the eye, however, vitamin C acts to ‘regenerate’ vitamin E, so it can go on protecting you from free radicals.
Best foods with vitamins C and E
To make sure you’re eating plenty of vitamin C, aim to include foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens.
Meanwhile, you can stock up on vitamin E by eating plenty of nuts (especially almonds) and seeds. → See eye health products
Beta-carotene is actually a bright orange pigment. It’s what gives foods like carrots, sweet potatoes and sea buckthorn their cheerful hue!
However, beyond making our favourite vegetables even more appetising, beta-carotene performs an important function in our bodies.
Once we’ve eaten beta-carotene, our bodies convert it into vitamin A.
Beta-carotene itself is another antioxidant, so it can offer the same sort of protection that vitamins C and E do. However, vitamin A is essential for eye health.
You need vitamin A to maintain a healthy cornea (the protective outer layer of your eye) and conjunctival membranes.
Furthermore, it’s an essential building block for a compound called rhodopsin. This is a special protein in the retina which is extremely sensitive to light. That means rhodopsin can help you see even in very dim light.(3)
Best foods with beta-carotene
You can get beta-carotene, or indeed vitamin A, through supplements, but there are a few downsides. Firstly, an excess of beta-carotene can be a risk factor for lung cancer in smokers.(2)
Too much vitamin A taken over a long period of time can also affect your bone strength, and pregnant women should also avoid vitamin A supplements as an excess of vitamin A can harm the baby.(4)
On the other hand, if you source your beta-carotene from foods, your body only converts what it needs. This makes it extremely difficult to absorb too much of it. (One notable exception is liver and liver products like paté, which are very high in vitamin A.)
Zinc and copper
Zinc is essential in the body and it performs a host of useful roles, from building enzymes to constructing proteins and cell membranes.
When it comes to the eye, its role centres around providing a helpful building block for essential structures, and also acting as an antioxidant.(2)
Meanwhile, copper deficiency can lead to sight loss.(5) This may be because copper is used by many different enzymes which affect the functioning of your nervous system, which needs to be healthy to support normal vision.
Best foods with zinc and copper
You can source plenty of zinc from nuts, beans, and chickpeas.
If you’re looking for a quick snack on the go, our Erbology raw crackers are also rich in copper and zinc. We love dipping our Indian Spiced Crackers or our Greek Olive Crackers into delicious dips for a light lunch.
People who follow a vegetarian diet may have a lower intake of zinc, so it’s particularly important to make sure you’re consuming enough.
Some of the best foods to eat if you’re keen to increase your intake of copper are nuts and seeds, leafy greens, tofu and mushrooms.
Omega-3 fatty acids
In the eye, certain omega-3 fatty acids (called DHA and EPA) affect inflammation, oxidative stress and the formation of blood vessels (vascularisation).
They may also help cells in your retina send signals to other cells, and can also affect the function of your photo-receptor membranes.(2)
While there is still much to discover about its exact role, studies have revealed that DHA may be essential for visual development in babies. Another study found that DHA was able to protect rats from retinal degeneration.(6)
This makes sense, given that both your eyes and brain are naturally abundant in DHA. You begin to store up DHA in the womb and during your early infancy.
Best foods with omega-3 fatty acids
Oily fish are often cited as the best source of omega-3s (and indeed DHA). However you can still get plenty of these special fatty acids if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
If so, you’ll want to stock up on flaxseed (also called linseed), seaweed and algae products like spirulina or nori.
Lutein and zeaxanthin
These two substances belong to the carotenoid family, just like beta-carotene, but your body does not convert them into vitamin A.
They act as antioxidants and further protect your eyes by absorbing blue light.(2)
Very few people get the recommended amount of lutein and zeaxanthin in their diet. Luckily, though, they’re often grouped together because they appear in the same foods. So you’ll only need to make a few swaps to cover them both!
Best foods with lutein and zeaxanthin
Make sure you’re getting enough of these two carotenoids by eating plenty of leafy greens such as kale, spinach and lettuce, alongside broccoli, peas and corn.
The best foods for eye health
You may have noticed that a theme runs through our list of the best foods for eye health.
Generally speaking, if you’re already following a healthy diet you are probably eating a lot of them already!
So, in order to keep your eyes healthy long into the future, you may only need to make a couple of small tweaks to up your intake of certain nutrients.
Or, as a rule of thumb for maintaining good eye health, try a diet which contains lots of each of these foods:
- Leafy greens like kale and spinach, which contain vitamin C, copper and lutein and zeaxanthin
- Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables like carrots, butternut squash and sea buckthorn, which contain beta-carotene
- A variety of nuts and seeds, which will cover your intake of vitamin E, copper and zinc
- Oily fish, or if you’re vegan or vegetarian, flaxseed or seaweed products to provide your omega-3s (specifically DHA)
All of these nutrients can be easily sourced from your diet and made part of healthy, delicious meals.
So, next time you’re snacking on a handful of almonds, or drinking your morning shot of sea buckthorn, remember that you’re not only feeding your body with good stuff. You’re taking care of your peepers, too!
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