Healthy Living

Eye Health Means More Than Carrots: How Families Can Preserve Their Vision Through Food

Good Eye Health Needs More Than Carrots To Maintain
Move toward more greens to improve eye health and help your children for the rest of their lives. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Mothers are very often the gatekeepers of their households by dictating the diets of their spouse, children, and aging parents alike, which is why there is so much emphasis on educating women on eye health. It isn’t just a matter of making sure there are carrots in the refrigerator or that everyone makes it to their annual eye appointment on time, but instead, the concern for eye health goes a little deeper — into the eyeball that is.

Attending the “Moms FOReSIGHT: A Clear View of Nutrition for Eye Health,” Optometrist and Ocular Nutrition Society board member Dr. Kimberly Reed, along with registered dietitian and author Elizabeth Somer, explain the intrinsic relationship between maintaining healthy eyes throughout a person’s lifetime and the eyes’ reliance on nutrients — and carrots don’t cut it. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two nutrients we’re born with but decrease over our lives and can only be replenished through diet and supplements.

At the conference, attendees were offered free MPOD testing to measure each person’s levels of lutein and zeaxanthin. After peering into a machine and locking your eye onto a blue dot, you are told to press a button every time the dot shakes or moves. These two nutrients are the only ones that have the ability to protect your eyes from blue light, much like a pair of sunglasses inside your eyes. Blue light sits on a spectrum with skin-damaging ultraviolet rays, except this kind is emitted from laptops, cellphones, and tablets. The importance of lutein and zeaxanthin is extraordinary, and they can lower the risk of eye disease 18 percent more than betacarotene, the nutrient in carrots, can.

Americans spend more than 20 billion on eye disease every year, and lifestyle choices such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercise will not only improve eyesight but also overall health. Although everyone wants to be able to see their grandchildren grow up and continue driving into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, it’s unrealistic for some who don’t prioritize their eye health with simple everyday supplements or diet improvements. One out of five Americans say they would rather look young than be able to have better, younger vision, according to Reed.

“Age-related macular degeneration is more common in older people and more common in women and many people believe losing their eyesight is inevitable. This is a myth,” Reed said at the conference while discussing the prevalence of AMD and cataracts for the typical person’s aging eye health.

There are more than four out of five adults who believe their eye health will inevitably worsen with age and there’s nothing they can do about it. “Vision is influenced by our lifestyle and commonly declines as we age,” Reed said. “The goal is to build optimal eye health early and maintain it throughout adult life.”

Currently, 258 million people throughout the world are visually impaired and another 39 million are blind, but by putting eyesight on our priority list, those numbers have the potential to drop significantly. Reed points out only 14 percent of parents are worried about their children’s vision in the future and that’s not enough. Even if a child has 20/20 (perfect vision) now, doesn’t mean they don’t need key nutrients slipped into their diet to maintain and ingrain healthy habits throughout their childhood. It will lay a foundation for children to live on and prosper well into their adult years and create a cyclical pattern of better eye care.

“Heredity does play a very strong role, but it’s not the only risk factor. You have to consider other risk factors,” Reed said. “You can’t trade in your heredity, you can’t trade in your parents for new ones, you can’t change your race, and you can’t change your age no matter how much Botox you get. Your eyes are going to age at the same rate no matter what. But we do have the ability to change the other risk factors, such as smoking and maintaining a healthy body weight and proper nutrition.”

Many people believe that if nutrition were key for their eye health, their doctor would have told them, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, 78 percent of U.S. adults have never received nutrition or diet advice from their doctor. Somer discusses the importance of creating a transparent relationship with your doctor and how to improve upon diet and supplements for eye health and overall wellbeing.

“If you were to count on your fingers and toes how many fruits and vegetables you had what would it be?” Somer asked the conference’s attendees. “The more colorful fruits and vegetables you eat, the better and the lower the risk for all age-related diseases from cataracts to macular degeneration to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression. I could go on and on.”

But studies show that half of Americans don’t even get one fruit a day and nearly 90 percent glorify their diet, and believe the three blueberries that are in their morning muffin is enough to cover their dietary requirements. According to Somer, Americans average about 0.2 percent of dark, leafy green vegetables every day, which include kale, chard, collards, spinach and romaine lettuce, all of which contain hefty amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin. Forget carrots, go grab a spinach salad for the sake of your eyes. All you need is a half a cup of kale or spinach a day.

Somer also recomends wheat germ, nuts, and whole grains for vitamin E, citrus, watermelon, and peppers for vitamin C, and fatty seafoods, such as wild salmon or mackerel, which all help improve eye health. Some of these foods may not be a child's favorite, with 76 percent of parents reporting they can't get their kids to eat foods like kale, but doctors and nutritionists advise to cleverly slip them into their diets anyway or turn to supplements for help. 

“It is difficult to obtain all of the nutrients that support eye health from food alone,” Somer said. “To fill the gaps, consider a supplement specifically formulated for eye health and vision.”

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