By Natalie Egan, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
Not only are fruits, vegetables, and nuts good for your heart, these foods may reduce your risk for progressive age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 55. Unlike severe eye conditions related to diabetes and untreated glaucoma, AMD rarely leads to total blindness. But progressive AMD can stop you from activities such as driving and reading.
Antioxidants Boost Vision
The link between a healthy diet and decreased vision loss from AMD seems to be the antioxidant properties of certain carotenoids, vitamins and minerals. Several years ago, the National Eye Institute released the results of the Age-Related Eye Disease Study, (AREDS). The institute enrolled 5,000 people between the ages of 55 and 80 to examine the effects of vitamin and mineral supplementation on age-related macular degeneration. The study found reduced disease progression in people with moderate AMD who took a daily supplement containing vitamin C (500 milligrams per day), vitamin E (400 international units (IU) per day), beta-carotene (15 milligrams per day or 25,000 IU), zinc (80 milligrams per day) and copper (2 milligrams per day).
Based on the outcome of the research, the National Eye Institute suggests vitamin supplements for people at high risk of developing vision loss caused by AMD. These include people who have:
- Intermediate AMD in one or both eyes
- Advanced AMD in one eye
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Getting More Antioxidants in Your Diet
People not at high risk of AMD also can have some of the same potential eye benefits with a healthy diet:
- Vitamin C — citrus fruits, berries, melons, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes
- Vitamin E — vegetable oils, almonds, pistachio nuts, peanuts, wheat germ, whole grains, turnip greens and mango
- Beta-carotene — carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, dark leafy green vegetables, melons, cantaloupes, winter squash and apricots
- Zinc — chicken, pork, liver, eggs, wheat germ, fortified breakfast cereals and seafood
- Copper — liver, cocoa beans, nuts, whole grains, seafood and dried fruits
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In addition to vitamins and minerals, carotenoids appear to have antioxidant properties that help keep eyes healthy. Carotenoids are unsaturated compounds of yellow to red pigments that are found in many fruits and vegetables, especially those with deep, rich colors.
Lutein and zeaxanthin show promise in helping to preserve vision. These two carotenoids collect in the back of the eye, especially in and around the macula. The optimal dietary amount of each is unknown, but eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily should provide sufficient lutein and zeaxanthin.
Great sources include:
- Lutein — spinach, kale, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens, dill, red peppers and guava
- Zeaxanthin — orange sweet peppers, broccoli, corn, turnip greens, collard greens, dark leafy greens, tangerines, oranges, eggs and persimmon
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Tasty Choices All Day Long
Lists of foods that contain the antioxidants are great to have, but working it into your daily routine can be a challenge. Below are some quick and easy ways to add nutrients to your meals:
- Add fruit and nuts or wheat germ to your cereal in the morning.
- Try a fruit and yogurt smoothie.
- Top your pancake or waffle with fruits and nuts.
- Sprinkle sunflower seeds on homemade bran muffins.
- Lunch and dinner
- Try some vegetable juice as a beverage.
- Add vegetables to your pasta dish or lasagna.
- Add frozen vegetables like spinach to soups or spaghetti sauce.
- Try prepackaged vegetables like carrots and broccoli and add color to your salad.
- Skewer your vegetables, spritz with olive oil and grill.
- Add melon, lemon or lime slices to your water for a new twist.
- Add almonds, mandarin oranges or strawberries to your dark spinach leaves for a tasty and refreshing salad.
- Freeze red grapes as a tasty treat.
- Have fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, broccoli, cucumber or zucchini cut up and available for snacking.
- Create a snazzy trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, bran cereal and a sprinkling of cocoa chips.
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Natalie Egan, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. is a senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She received her Bachelor of Science at Simmons College and her Master of Science in nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. She completed her dietetic internship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is an adjunct faculty member at Emmanuel College and Simmons College.