A s we age, declining eyesight can be inevitable: blurred vision, dry eye, and bothersome glare from oncoming headlights while driving at night are just a few of the common age-related vision problems people encounter. In some cases, degenerative eye conditions are worsened by poor overall health, especially for those with mismanaged diabetes. But the good news is that some eye problems can be prevented or even reversed through dietary changes and proper nutrition.
Whether you’ve got excellent visual acuity or you’re already having vision issues, it’s a good idea to adjust your daily meal plans to include foods that maximize eye function. Aaron Harris, practice manager and certified nutrition specialist at the Memphis Eye Clinic, says many people do not realize how important a role diet plays in common degenerative eye problems and diseases.
“Given all the diabetes we see, we are huge proponents of disease prevention and nutritional education,” Harris says. “Even if you’re not a diabetic and just have poor nutrition — if you’re deficient in vitamins and minerals and eating the standard American diet — you can manifest problems in the eye.”
Among these problems is the development of cataracts — a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. A tell-tale sign of the onset of cataracts is glare, especially from oncoming headlights when you’re driving at night. “It’d be no different than if your glasses got fogged up, and you got glare that way,” says Harris, “except it’s happening to the natural lens of the eye.” Most cataracts are related to aging, and statistics from the National Eye Institute show that by age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. Preliminary research suggests that a preventative dietary regimen may prove helpful in delaying the onset and decreasing the severity of cataracts.
Another typically age-related vision problem is macular degeneration (MD) — a loss of vision in the center of the visual field due to damage to the retina. “Big portions of your center vision will be blacked out,” Harris says. “So you can have somebody in front of you, and where their nose is, it’s just a big dark spot.” People over 50 are at increased risk for MD, which has been linked with poor nutrient absorption, hereditary factors, hypertension, and smoking.
Glaucoma is a condition that damages the eye’s optic nerve and can result in painless vision loss and blindness. “With glaucoma, a person would generally start losing vision in their periphery,” says Harris. “So you can see right in front of you, but vision around the edges is going dark.”
For most eye problems, you can often protect yourself with early detection and treatment from an ophthalmologist. And starting now, you can arm yourself with a dietary plan that works to aid and improve the intricate functions of your eyes.
What to eat and why: Green, leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, collard greens, and broccoli are packed with lutein and zeaxanthin — carotenoids that act as antioxidants in the eye, helping protect and maintain healthy cells and lower the risk of developing macular degeneration and cataracts. “We prefer that people eat them raw,” Harris says. “Steaming is okay, but often when you cook your vegetables — by throwing them in a skillet with olive oil, for example — that can damage a lot of the good stuff that’s in there.”
Orange-colored vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and orange bell peppers also provide lutein. “Orange food contains lutein, which is the main pigment that exists naturally in the retina,” Harris says. “If you supplement your diet with lutein, you’re going to have improved retina health.” Orange veggies are also a great source of beta-carotene, a type of vitamin A that helps the retina and other parts of the eye work smoothly.
Berries are good for their polyphenols and mineral content, and they are powerful at combating free radicals due to their antioxidant properties. “In general, it’s the increased oxidation of cells that determines how quickly a disease state is going to progress, even cancer,” says Harris. “Antioxidants protect cells and prevent free radical damage.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to eye health and can be acquired through the consumption of wild-caught cold-water fish, avocados, raw nuts, grass-fed beef, and oils, such as olive oil, fish oil, macadamia nut oil, and coconut oil. “The tears your eye produces and the thin tear film that covers your eye is made up of a lot of fatty acids,” Harris says. “We recommend increased omega-3 intake because it helps lubricate the eyes.”
Citrus, including grapefruit, lemon, lime, and orange, offers antioxidant effects due to its vitamin C levels. But Harris warns to be aware of the high sugar content in some fruits, especially in fruit juices that are not homemade. If your blood sugar levels are higher than they should be, your risk for a variety of health problems increases.
Even if you are taking medications for eye conditions or other health problems, like diabetes, without proper nutrition a disease state will still progress. Increasing intake of the foods mentioned above and other essential vitamins and minerals is key to good health. “This goes above and beyond eye health,” Harris says. “When we incorporate these nutrients into our diet, we experience improvements throughout our whole body, not just our eyes.”
It’s best to see your optometrist at the onset of any abnormalities in your vision. You may need glasses, but symptoms could be the result of a more serious problem, in which case a visit to an ophthalmologist is necessary. Once you hit 40, seeing an ophthalmologist once every year or two is recommended for cataract detection, and people over 50 should visit their ophthalmologist annually to check for other age-related eye-health problems, like macular degeneration and glaucoma. Diabetics should see an ophthalmologist annually, regardless of age, to check for these conditions, as well as diabetic retinopathy. •