The Eyes Have It

We work hard to keep our physical health in tip top shape, but do you think about your eye health as part of your physical health? Having routine appointments with your optometrist, at least annually, is a lot about making sure our glasses strength is appropriate for vision and that frames match the latest fashion, but maintaining good eye health is more than just about glasses.

Diet is an important background factor allowing your eyes to age well. Eyes require specific nutrients for protection and functionality. You may have grown up hearing the message “eat your carrots so you can see in the dark”.  That’s true. Carrots or any bright orange or green vegetable as well as egg yolk and liver are rich in vitamin A (a fat-soluble vitamin) that is critical for the healthy photoreceptive cells (called “rods”) in the retina that allow us to see in the dark. Night blindness is extremely rare as most people receive adequate amounts vitamin A. Vitamin A also is part of a family of substances called beta carotenoids, most notably, beta carotene.

Although night blindness is not the real vision issue, aging is. As we age our eyes may become visually impaired after years of exposure to ultraviolet sunlight, environmental oxidative stress, diabetes, genetic factors or smoking. Cataracts are the most common cause of visual impairment followed by glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). While cataracts and glaucoma are quite treatable, AMD has limited treatment options for people older than 65 years.

While risk factors for poor vision health are generally well known, awareness of how important nutrition is in supporting good eye health is getting more attention. Nutrients known to support vision include vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, copper, omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Lutein is emerging as one of the most important beta carotenes, along with zeaxanthin, that is critical in supporting healthy vision especially in the macula of the eye where AMD develops. The standard American diet provides 1 to 3 mg. of lutein and zeaxanthin daily whereas research shows 6 mg. is needed to reduce the risk of AMD.

Lutein is found abundantly in kale, spinach, collard and turnip greens with lesser amounts found in corn, peas, broccoli, romaine lettuce, green beans, egg yolks and oranges. If you choose a plant-based diet, you are probably getting a healthy amount of lutein. The American Optometric Association recommends diet and/or supplements to ensure adequate amounts of lutein. Lutein is best absorbed with a fat source so taking a lutein supplement with a meal optimizes absorption. If you plan to take a supplement, take one that includes 10 mg. of lutein and 10 mg. of zeaxanthin.

A recent survey of baby boomers (55-75 years old) found that those surveyed were not aware of critical nutrients that support eye health. Your eye health is important. Talk to your optometrist or your dietitian about how to keep your vision in tip top shape. For more information contact the American Optometric Association http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public

For a lutein and an omega-3 fatty acid rich meal try Baked Salmon with Wilted Spinach. Grill or bake a 4 or 5 ounce portion of salmon. Wilt 2 cups of fresh spinach by lightly sautéing spinach in a skillet with 2 teaspoons or butter or olive oil. Lightly salt and pepper salmon and spinach. Make a side salad with chopped romaine, sliced tomatoes with dressing of choice. The salmon provides omega-3 fatty acids that support healthy blood vessels by reducing inflammation. While salmon isn’t a source of lutein, it may help reduce the effects of inflammation caused by oxidative stress.

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.