Feast For Your Eyes

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As we age, many of us develop problems with our vision. Almost half the people over age 75 have cataracts, which cloud the lens of the eye and blur vision. Cataracts are the leading cause of impaired vision in the elderly. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), in which a ‘blind spot’ develops in the center of vision, is the leading cause of blindness over age 55.

Who is at risk?
Everyone is at risk for cataracts and AMD as they grow older, in part because of a lifetime of exposure to sunlight. Smoking tobacco greatly increases a person’s risk for both conditions. Diabetics, especially those with uncontrolled blood sugar, and alcoholics have an increased risk for getting cataracts. Having high blood pressure increases the risk of developing AMD.

What can be done?
Stopping smoking and protecting your eyes from the sun are two of the most important preventive measures. Start protecting your eyes now, and encourage your children and grandchildren to do the same!

Can diet help?
Many studies indicate that diet may play a role in preventing age-related eye problems. Certain antioxidants are concentrated in the eye. When things like sunlight and tobacco smoke cause the formation of harmful ‘free radicals,’ these antioxidants mop them up before they cause damage. People who eat foods rich in these antioxidants are at less risk for cataracts and AMD.

Eye protective nutrients are:
• Lutein & zeaxanthin – These antioxidants are brightly colored plant pigments found in many dark green and deep yellow vegetables. Several studies have shown that people whose diets were high in lutein-rich foods like spinach were the least likely to get AMD.
• Vitamin C – This antioxidant is concentrated in the lens of the eye and may help prevent cataracts.
• Vitamin E – Some studies have found higher rates of cataracts in people with low vitamin E intake.
• Zinc – While not an antioxidant, zinc is important to the eye because it helps hold the protective color layer of the retina in place. Some studies have found zinc to be protective against AMD.

Will supplements help?
A multivitamin-mineral tablet that supplies vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc might be helpful to ensure adequate intake of these nutrients, and a recent study has found that long-term use of a multivitamin or vitamin C or E supplement for longer than ten years appears to substantially reduce the risk of cataracts. But don’t overdo the supplements. One study found that too much zinc is harmful to the eyes. The safety of lutein and zeaxanthin supplements is not known, and some studies indicate that they might be harmful, especially for smokers. Foods that are high in these nutrients are safe and will benefit more than just the eyes.

Food sources of eye-protective nutrients
If you eat 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, you should receive a good amount of eye protective nutrients. The items listed here are among the better sources:
• Lutein and zeaxanthin - dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, collards, turnip and beet greens, chard, mustard greens), broccoli, lettuce, okra, red bell peppers, brussels sprouts, zucchini, corn, peas, green beans, egg yolks
• Vitamin C - bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, melons, kohlrabi, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, tomatoes
• Vitamin E - sunflower seeds, peanut butter, almonds, peanuts, avocado, soybeans, wheat germ, asparagus, sweet potatoes, vegetable oils
• Zinc - fortified breakfast cereals, oysters, meat, beans, nuts, yogurt

Prevent age-related eye problems
• Quit smoking.
• Protect your eyes from sunlight.
• If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control.
• Have regular eye exams.
• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; possibly take a multivitamin.

For more information:

By Cheryl Sullivan, MA, RD

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