Fairview Park Hospital - June 06, 2016
by Kathryn Johnson, OD, F.A.A.O

Everybody knows that eating right is a good way to keep yourself healthy. The good news is that the same diet that helps your heart is probably also good for your eyes. The connection isn't surprising: your eyes rely on tiny arteries for oxygen and nutrients, just as the heart relies on much larger arteries. Keeping those arteries healthy will help your eyes.

Some foods stand out as particularly helpful for eye health. Here are four you should make sure are part of your diet.

KALE. Leafy green vegetables, like kale, are high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients found in the healthy eye that are believed to lower your risk for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts. One large study showed that women who had diets high in lutein were 23 percent less likely to develop cataracts than women whose diets were low in this nutrient. Not a big fan of kale? Not to worry. Other dark leafy green vegetables, like spinach, romaine lettuce, collards and turnip greens, also contain significant amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin. Eggs are also a good source of these nutrients, as are broccoli, peas and corn.

SALMON. Some studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acid from cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and halibut reduce the risk of developing eye disease later in life. A 2010 study from Johns Hopkins found that people who had a diet high in omega-3 fatty acid were much less likely to develop AMD. The Women's Health Study looked at the diet of nearly 40,000 women and found women with higher intakes of omega-3, had a significant decrease in dry eye syndrome, which includes tired, burning, irritated and red eyes.

ORANGES. Oranges and all of their citrus cousins -- grapefruit, tangerines, and lemons -- are high in vitamin C, an antioxidant that is critical to eye health. Scientists have found that your eyes need relatively high levels of vitamin C to function properly, and antioxidants can prevent or at least delay cataracts and AMD. Lots of other foods offer benefits similar to oranges, including peaches, red peppers, tomatoes and strawberries.

BEANS. Legumes of all kinds, including black-eyed peas, kidney beans, lima beans, and peanuts contain zinc, an essential trace mineral that is found in high concentration in the eyes. Zinc may help protect your eyes from the damaging effects of light. Other foods high in zinc include oysters, lean red meat, poultry and fortified cereals. Are you Paleo or Whole30? Your eating plan includes avoiding many grains and legumes, so consider sunflower seeds, oatmeal and oysters to up your zinc levels.

There are lots of other great food choices to keep your eyes healthy. Among them, the one most people think of first: carrots. Carrots are high in beta-carotene, a nutrient that helps with night vision, as are other orange-colored fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, apricots and cantaloupe.

It can be mind-boggling to sort through the alphabet soup of recommended daily intakes (RDI), and actually write an affordable grocery list, not to mention the delicate palate of a fussy toddler or avoiding food allergies and sensitivities for safety reasons. Throw in the proliferation of eating plans out there from Paleo to gluten-free to Atkins to Whole30, and we have a lot of dietary contradictions. Nostalgia may bring you back to a simpler time: remember the food pyramid of the 1990s?

Mainly, I want my patients to be healthy and to know what they eat now may ultimately affect their vision. I also understand not everyone wants to spend all their time and energy on meal planning and prep. I recommend to simply eat a colorful plate. If you stick to all beiges and browns, like hamburger buns and rice, your plate is not very colorful, and your diet probably won't hit the daily goal of 5 -9 recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. You don't have to be a nutrition expert to "eyeball" it, though! Adding color to your grocery list, is as easy as scanning the store and choosing based on what's in season or on sale, so it's easy and sustainable even on a busy schedule. You also cannot get as much "color" from packaged and processed foods, so colorful eating will guide you toward the produce aisles as well.

Even if my refrigerator isn't perfect, I hope you'll join me in trying new things, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, and maybe we'll find ourselves too full for dessert. Ha! Unless, do peanut butter cookies count as a source of zinc?

Bon appetit!

Kathryn Johnson, OD, F.A.A.O