Eating for Your Eyes

When deciding what to eat, you probably consider what’s good for your heart, your immune system, or maybe even your bones. But your eyes? Chances are, they don’t register in the equation. But they should because certain nutrients are critical for eye health. Consuming a diet that’s loaded with anti-inflammatory foods and rich in antioxidants can even reduce the progression of macular degeneration, notes Johanna Seddon, M.D., a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and co-author of Eat Right for Your Sight (a project of the American Macular Degeneration Foundation). In addition, certain foods can potentially help with symptoms of dry eyes. Here are the nutrients your eyes love most.

Beta-carotene

A precursor of vitamin A, this antioxidant powerhouse plays an important role in eye health and may slow progression of macular degeneration. The retina is particularly sensitive to free-radical attack (those are the unstable cells antioxidants combat) partly because it requires so much oxygen to function. Although, beta carotene has been associated to lung cancer in those who smoke or have been exposed to asbestos.

Best Foods for Beta Carotene: Sweet potatoes, butternut squash, red peppers, pumpkin, spinach, and turnip greens, and, of course, carrots. Here’s a tip: Drizzle on a little olive oil. Beta carotene from food is best absorbed when it’s consumed with a healthy fat, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin

These plant-based pigments that give certain fruits and vegetables their color are potent antioxidants that accumulate in the retina, explains Lisa Hark, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of ophthalmic sciences at Columbia University in New York City. “When light enters the eye, it’s absorbed in the retina, especially the macula, and free radicals are produced.” The macula is the most sensitive part of the retina that controls our central vision. With lutein and zeaxanthin at the ready, those bad boys are much less likely to cause long-term damage. These pigments are blue light blockers that prevent oxidative damage to the retina.

Best Foods for Lutein and Zeaxanthin: kale, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, peas, zucchini, eggs, and Brussels sprouts.

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Vitamin C

This antioxidant does way more than help you ward off colds: Research shows it can slow the progression of advanced AMD by 25% and visual acuity loss by nearly 20%, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). It also supports healthy blood vessels in the eyes (and everywhere for that matter!). Vitamin C may also play a role in slowing down the progression of age related cataracts.

Best Foods for Vitamin C: red and green bell peppers, guava, kiwi, oranges, strawberries, kale, and broccoli.

Vitamin E

Another member of the antioxidant squad, vitamin E is critical for healthy nerve development. When you’re not getting enough, you may experience muscle weakness, involuntary eye movement, and poor coordination, according to the AOA.

Best Foods for Vitamin E: wheat germ, sunflower seeds, oils (such as grapeseed, safflower, and nut oils), almonds, peanut and almond butters, and avocado. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any E supplements, especially if you’re taking any blood thinners.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Three different omega-3 fatty acids—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—are important for healthy eye and brain development. “Omega-3 fatty acids are major structural components of the retina and may affect retinal function,” explains Rukhsana Mirza, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Indeed, research has found that people with AMD who have the highest intake of omega-3 fatty acids are 30% less likely than those with a low intake to develop advanced AMD over a 12-year period.

Best Foods for Omega-3s: fatty fish (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna), walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and canola oil.

Zinc

An essential trace mineral, zinc is found in high concentrations in the eyes. It helps the body absorb vitamin A. The mighty mineral plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of the retina and other cell membranes and may help protect your eyes from the damaging effects of light.

Best Foods for Zinc: shellfish (especially oysters), fortified breakfast cereals, wheat germ, beef, chicken, and pumpkin and sesame seeds.

Selenium

This trace mineral is another antioxidant fighter, Lark says. It helps in the body’s absorption of vitamin E. Most people have no problem getting enough from their diet. Though it’s not common, you can get too much, especially if you’re a big fan of Brazil nuts. Adults only need 55 mcg of selenium daily (and shouldn’t exceed 400 mcg), according to the National Institutes of Health. One Brazil nut can contain as much as 91 mcg, so eat them once in a while instead of every day.

Best Foods for Selenium: Brazil nuts, eggs, tuna, turkey, sunflower seeds, shellfish (like oysters and mussels), wheat germ, and salmon.

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Copper

It’s not just for pots, people! Copper is another essential mineral that’s involved in many physiologic processes, including immune function and defending against oxidative stress (what happens when too may free radicals form). It is important to take/supplement copper along with zinc since a high dose of zinc can result in a copper deficiency.

Best Foods for Copper: beef, oysters, seaweed, sesame and sunflower seeds, cashews, and dark chocolate.

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AREDS 2 Supplementation

If you have advanced macular degeneration or are at high risk for developing it, you may benefit from the AREDS 2 supplement. Developed by the National Eye Institute and tested in the landmark Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), this supplement contains high levels of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc, and copper, and it’s been shown to reduce the risk of developing advanced AMD by about 25 percent. It can also slow progression if you have it already. If you’re a current or former smoker, opt for the AREDS2 formula, which swaps beta carotene for lutein and zeaxanthin, Mona Adeli, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Beta carotene supplements may increase the risk of lung cancer among people who puff. Always talk to you doctor before starting a new supplement.

Stacey Colino
Meet Our Writer
Stacey Colino

Stacey Colino is an award-winning writer, specializing in health, fitness, and psychological issues, and an ACE-certified health coach. Her work has appeared in dozens of national magazines, and she is the co-author of the books Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well, Strong Is the New Skinny, Good Food Fast!, and Taking Back the Month.