On Nutrition: Eye Nutrition

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Barbara Quinn
The Monterey County Herald, Calif.

05-13-11
Eye Health

My eye doctor is my hero. He saved my sight a few years ago when a broken tree branch found its way into my right eye. And he continues to check my eyes regularly to make sure all is well.

Anything I can do to keep my eyes healthy between visits? I asked him.

“Make sure you take a multivitamin every day,” he said.

I see. Of course he is right. What we feed our bodies feeds our eyes as well.

Just how do we “see”? It’s all about light, according to the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. Light enters the eye and is focused on an area called the retina. The retina contains “photoreceptors” which convert light to electrical signals that travel to the brain and figure out what we “see.”

Not all light coming into the eye is good light, however. Some, such as ultra violet light, can damage the eyes like it damages the skin. To the rescue are specific nutrients and other substances found in foods that help to absorb dangerous light and act as a shield to protect delicate eye tissue.

Here are some nutritional ways to see a better view of the world:

Look for the green and yellow and red. Pigments that give color to fruit and vegetables help to filter out “phototoxic” light that can damage the macula – the central part of the eye’s retina. Lutein and zeaxanthin (“zee-a-zan-thin”) – found in dark green foods such as kale, spinach, and broccoli – absorb dangerous UV light and wayward oxygen molecules that can damage the eye. Lycopene found in tomatoes and other red-colored fruits and vegetables has also been found to protect the eye and guard against age-related macular degeneration.

Sea food. Fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which appear to protect against common eye problems such as dry eye syndrome, macular degeneration, and retinopathy. Dietary supplements specifically formulated for eye health often contain these important fatty acids.

See the value of antioxidants. Vitamin C found in strawberries, tomatoes, and citrus fruit is a powerful antioxidant associated with healthy eye tissues. Vitamin E found in whole grains, nuts, and vegetable oils works alongside vitamin C to protect the retina from “oxidative” damage.

Visualize vitamin A. Retinol (vitamin A) found in vegetables and meat is used by the eye to make a substance called rhodopsin which helps us see at night. Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness around the world.

See the value of zinc. Although needed in very small amounts by the body, this mineral – -found primarily in meats and whole grains – -works with vitamin A to protect the eyes.

So there’s a reason that nutrition experts recommend we eat more brightly- colored fruits and vegetables and a balance of other healthful foods. These foods are literally “sun blocks” for the eyes. What is good for our bodies is truly good for our view of the world.

Oh yes, and ALWAYS wear protective eye wear when you are trimming tree branches.

(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at bquinn@chomp.org.)