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.April 27, 2022 4:46 pm 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.)