When it comes to staying healthy, we may tend to focus on our heart, brain and bones, first. But healthy aging also involves seeing well into the future. Keeping our eyes healthy is an important way to help prevent age-related eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, vision loss, dry eyes, cataracts, and problems with night vision. While an overall healthy and active lifestyle is key, adding more of these foods for healthy eyes to your diet will help keep them sparkling and strong.
1. Dark Green, Leafy Vegetables
To prevent eye diseases such as macular degeneration-a condition which causes progressive damage to the retina, resulting in a gradual loss of vision-dark green vegetables, such as kale, spinach, collard greens and dark green lettuce (think Romaine), should definitely be on the menu. That’s because they contain lutein and zeaxanthin, two important nutrients that have antioxidant functions in the body and help to prevent cell damage. “We have lutein and zeaxanthin as pigments in the back part of the eye,” says Dr. Guillermo Rocha, an ophthalmologist and Medical Director of GRMC Vision Centre in Brandon, Manitoba. “Keeping that part well nourished helps maintain normal physiology at the back of the eye.” Rocha explains that lutein acts like sunglasses, helping to protect the retina from damage.
2. Sweet Potatoes and Yams
Bright orange fruits and vegetables get their colour from beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, that helps promote healthy vision. “It also helps the eyes to adjust to low levels of light at night,” explains Sarah Coulson, a registered dietitian with Pivot Sport Medicine and Orthopaedics in Toronto. She also recommends noshing on squash, carrots, apricots and pumpkin.
3. Fatty Fish
The omega-3 fatty acids that are found in oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, have all sorts of health benefits-including your eyes. In fact, a 2009 study by the National Eye Institute in the United States found that omega-3 fatty acids helped to protect adults from both age-related macular degeneration and dry-eye syndrome. Rocha says that’s because omega-3 helps modulate the inflammation that can lead to dry eyes. He warns, however, that some omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids can actually cause inflammation in the eyes and suggests those supplements be avoided if dry eyes are a problem.
While this hearty cruciferous vegetable has long been touted for keeping cancer and heart disease at bay, it’s important for eye health, too. In addition to containing lutein and zeaxanthin, broccoli is also high in vitamin C. “It’s the synergy of nutrients,” says Coulson. “That particular food and combination of nutrients can actually reduce the progress of age-related macular degeneration and vision loss.”
5. Wheat Germ
Wheat germ is great source of vitamin E, another important antioxidant. “What vitamin E does is protect the eyes from free-radical damage,” says Coulson. This means that it protects cells in the body from oxidation, which can cause deterioration and disease. Vitamin E may also decrease the progression of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Wheat germ can be added to anything that you’re baking, or it can be included in your oatmeal, yogurt, salads or mixed with smoothies. “You can even add it to stews,” says Coulson. Almonds, sunflower seeds and hazelnuts are also good sources of vitamin E.
From chickpeas and kidney beans, to lentils, eating beans and other legumes is an easy way to add zinc to your diet. Zinc helps release vitamin A from the liver so that it can be used in eye tissues. Meanwhile, a zinc deficiency can cause deterioration of the macula, at the centre of the retina. Serve up beans in stews and casseroles, or add them to salads. Zinc is also found in oysters, beef, poultry and pumpkin seeds.
What about supplements?
While it may be tempting to add supplements to your diet to boost your eye health, Coulson says that when it comes to getting the right nutrients, whole foods are the way to go. “I always say food first,” says Coulson. “Food provides nutrients in the right amounts. Take them just as nature made, because they are far more effective.”
That said, a number of companies make vitamins specifically for people suffering from macular degeneration. Known as AREDS-formula vitamins, they contain antioxidant vitamins in doses that have been shown to help with age-related eye problems. But Rocha warns that their quality can vary, so be sure to consult an eye-care specialist or health practitioner first.
In general, he says, good health is the first line of defense when it comes to keeping your eyes healthy. “We should all be eating healthier,” says Rocha. “Avoiding trans fats, lowering calories-it all benefits the eyes.”