Dietary choices can help protect our vision as we age.
The food we eat is closely linked to our whole body’s wellness. Our dietary choices add up over the course of a lifetime into long-term health outcomes, and eye health is no exception. There are a number of diseases and conditions that can affect our eyes, especially as we age: from poor night vision and a loss of visual acuity, to more serious issues like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Multiple studies have connected many of these aging-related eye conditions to our diets. Current science suggests that a wide array of vitamins and minerals contribute to eye health, and fortunately, these nutrients are available in many readily-accessible foods. Even better, an eye-healthy diet can have benefits for your whole body, too.
It’s important to remember that dietary changes aren’t a substitute for comprehensive medical care—the kind that Heritage helps connect its members with—and that any diet plans should be undertaken in consultation with your doctor. But thoughtful dietary choices can help you lay a strong foundation for the future health of your eyes. We’ve collected a list of seven essential eye-healthy nutrients from various food sources that you can incorporate into your meals to protect and support your vision in the long term.
1. Vitamin A: sweet potatoes and carrots.
Growing up, you may have heard that carrots were good for your vision. That’s because they’re an important source of vitamin A. Your retina—the membrane at the back of your eye that detects light and transmits it to your brain—needs vitamin A to do its job well, and a lack of this essential vitamin can result in poor night vision, poor visual acuity in general, and an increased risk of cataracts. But carrots aren’t the only good source of vitamin A—sweet potatoes are bursting with it, too.
2. Zinc: beans and black-eyed peas.
All that vitamin A needs some help getting from your liver to your retina, and that’s where zinc comes in. Zinc makes vitamin A more available for your body to use, as well as helping to prevent cloudy cataracts. Several types of beans—black-eyed peas, kidney beans, and lima beans especially—are high in zinc, so if you celebrate the New Year with a pot of black-eyed peas, you can celebrate ocular health, too.
3. Vitamin C: citrus fruits, strawberries, peaches, and tomatoes.
Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes are an excellent source of vitamin C, as are lots of other colorful fruits like strawberries, peaches, and tomatoes. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, a type of nutrient which helps reduce cellular damage from free radicals—theorized to be a key factor in aging. The vitamin C in these fruits can help slow or prevent the progress of age-related vision conditions, like macular degeneration and cataracts.
4. Vitamin E: avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamin E is another important antioxidant, similar to vitamin C and with many of the same health benefits. Avocados are a good source of vitamin E, as well as nuts and seeds, like almonds and sunflower seeds.
5. Selenium: whole grains.
Whole-grain breads, cereals, and pasta are good sources of selenium, which is yet another antioxidant and is also associated with a reduced risk of cataracts. Selenium is also in animal proteins, like red meat and eggs, but the cholesterol in these means it’s a good idea to consume them in moderation.
6. Lutein and zeaxanthin: green, leafy vegetables.
Kale has developed a reputation as a health food, and with good reason. But if kale isn’t your favorite, you can also opt for spinach or Swiss chard, as long as it’s a dark green, leafy vegetable. These types of veggies are high in lutein and zeaxanthin, part of the carotenoid family of nutrients. Studies suggest that these retina-healthy nutrients help to prevent age-related macular degeneration, particularly in combination with the other nutrients on this list—vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, copper, and selenium.
7. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids: cold-water fish.
Healthy oils, like olive oil, and fatty acids are also key for eye health. In particular, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids support the lubrication of your corneas and prevent dry eye, which can be both irritating and damaging. The best source for these fatty acids are cold-water fish, like salmon, halibut, tuna, or trout.
For ocular health, look to a Mediterranean diet.
A few thoughtful dietary choices can pay dividends for your overall health, and for the health of your eyes in particular. Many of the foods listed here fall under the umbrella of the Mediterranean diet, based on foods traditionally consumed in communities around the Mediterranean sea. This style of eating centers around seafood, leafy greens, colorful fruit, nuts, and whole grains, and if you’re looking for some general guidelines for eye-healthy foods, the Mediterranean diet is a good—and delicious—bet.
While a varied, nutritious diet lays a strong foundation for your health and wellness, it doesn’t replace your regular eye exam. As a Heritage member, your benefits include access to our provider network, with practitioners that can advise you on your eye health and the impact of your dietary choices on it. We encourage you to take advantage of the benefits you’re entitled to, and develop a strong partnership with your vision care provider for lifelong eye health.