Nutrition and Eye Health (Part 3)

By Amy Campbell | October 15, 2007 12:00 am

Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at various nutrients and how they may impact the health of your eyes. We’ll wrap up this series with a look at some lesser-known nutrients (antioxidants, to be exact) and what their roles are in eye health.

Lutein: Lutein is a type of antioxidant called a carotenoid. Carotenoids are yellowish pigments that lend color to fruits and vegetables. Their role is to protect the organism from ultraviolet light radiation and oxygen. Lutein is found in corn, egg yolks, and green fruits and vegetables. It’s also found in the macula of the retina to help filter out blue light and ultraviolet light.


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Several studies have linked a high intake of lutein with a lower incidence of age-related macular degeneration[1] and cataract[2] development. A Harvard study revealed that consuming 6 milligrams of lutein daily (the amount found in ½ cup of cooked spinach) lowered the risk of developing macular degeneration by 43%. Eating lutein-rich foods may also lower the risk of developing cataracts by up to 50%.

Zeaxanthin: Zeaxanthin is another kind of carotenoid that is found, along with lutein, in the retina. The same foods that are rich in lutein (primarily green vegetables and fruits, but also some yellow and orange ones) are also rich in zeaxanthin. These two carotenoids usually go hand-in-hand as far as protecting against macular degeneration and possibly cataracts. The message of the fruit and vegetable campaign “More Matters”[3] is certainly applicable when it comes to eating for eye health.

Other nutrients: Many other nutrients are necessary for proper eye function. Vitamins A, C, E, and the B-complex vitamins, as well as zinc and selenium, all play a role in ensuring that eyes stay healthy.

There’s still more work to be done in the area of nutrition and eye health, and despite all of the dietary supplements that have appeared on the market, there’s not a lot of evidence that shows they can prevent eye problems. Taking a good multivitamin/mineral supplement, along with a fish oil supplement, may prove to be protective. In the meantime, focus on eating a variety of foods, with emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and heart-healthy fats.

A timely study has just been released by Australian researchers from the Centre for Eye Research Australia at the University of Melbourne. Their conclusion, after analyzing 11 studies involving about 150,000 people over the past nine years, is that dietary nutrients don’t prevent age-related macular edema (AMD). However, not all researchers would agree. A seven-year study published by the National Eye Institute in 2001, called the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), showed that high doses of vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and zinc reduced the risk of developing advanced AMD by 25%. Furthermore, data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data indicates that higher intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin may reduce the risk of advanced AMD in people ages 40-59. Other studies that have looked at lutein and zeaxanthin report similar results.

So, what should you make of all this? First, if you have or are at high risk for developing any kind of diabetes-related eye conditions, talk to your eye-care professional and the rest of your health-care team about steps you can take to keep your eyes healthy. Aim to get your HbA1c[4] level as close to 7% (or your target goal) as possible. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods in your eating plan. Ask if dietary supplements are right for you. And finally, if you’re a smoker, the health of your eyes is yet another reason to quit. Smoking can contribute to AMD, diabetic retinopathy[5], cataracts, and glaucoma[6].

  1. macular degeneration:
  2. cataract:
  3. “More Matters”:
  4. HbA1c:
  5. retinopathy:
  6. glaucoma:

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin.

Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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