Your Eyes Are What You Eat

How the right diet can help save your sight.

Lynn ProwittBy Lynn Prowitt

Having too much sugar in your blood, over time, damages the tiny blood vessels and tissues in your eyes. This damage can lead to diabetic eye disease, which includes diabetic retinopathy (the most common), cataracts, and glaucoma. About one-third of people over 40 with diabetes have diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness.

Allen Taylor, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Nutrition and Vision Research at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, explains the effect of prolonged high blood sugar this way: "Excessive carbohydrate puts cells in double jeopardy. It changes the cells so they don't function properly and on top of that, it hurts the cell's editing machinery." In other words, "Think of the cells as having vacuum cleaners – not only does high blood sugar create dirt, but it breaks the vacuum cleaner so the dirt accumulates even faster." When this happens to the cells in your eyes, your eye's blood vessels, retina and lens can be compromised, putting your sight at risk.

How can you protect your eyes? The first, obvious way is to put the kibosh on the high blood glucose that causes the damage. Eat a healthy, low carb, low glycemic, anti-inflammatory, high fiber diet -- and exercise (and of course, take any medication your doctor prescribes). Second, get plenty of the nutrients research has shown to be important to eye health.

Here are the some of those nutrients that Taylor and his colleagues have studied and found may help prevent "dirt" and "broken vacuum cleaners" in your eyes:

  • Lutein & Zeaxanthin. These two antioxidants are the only carotenoids found in the eye, and may protect against cataracts and macular degeneration.
    • Found in: dark, leafy greens – like kale, spinach and collards, turnip greens, and mustard greens.
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is another antioxidant that has been found to be protective against cataracts and macular degeneration. Consuming between 250mg and 500mg (diet plus supplements) or more is associated with this health benefit.
    • Found in: bell peppers (all colors), hot chili peppers, papaya, broccoli, cantaloupe, and strawberries.
  • Vitamin E. Vitamin E has also been found to be protective against cataracts and macular degeneration. In one study, a supplement containing 400 IU/day was beneficial.
    • Found in: almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and cooked spinach.
  • Essential Fatty Acids. Some research has found that people with higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, may be somewhat protected from eye disease. These omega-3s are found in fish and seafood. Low blood levels of DHA and EPA, also, have been associated with eye disease, including diabetic retinopathy. Recent research, however, indicates that supplementing with omega-3 oils may not protect you, so the jury is still out.
    • Found in: fish eggs (roe), wild salmon, mackerel, oysters, anchovies, and tuna.
  • Zinc. Zinc is found in high concentration in the retina, and is instrumental in the production of melanin, a protective pigment in the eye.
    • Found in: oysters, clams, crab, lobster, beef, lamb, and game meats.

Taylor says that it's not only people with diabetes that need to take heed. "Most people should eat a diet that protects them against the ravages of glucose [and other cellular damage from diet and environment], he says, "especially in America where our diet is so sugar-rich, we are all susceptible to the adverse effects. We should all be eating a healthier diet, high in fruits and vegetables and low in easily broken down carbohydrates."

NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.

Last Modified Date: June 24, 2013

All content on dLife.com is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.
Sources
  1. American Optometric Association. Diet & Nutrition. http://www.aoa.org/x11813.xml (Accessed 5/16/13).
  2. American Optometric Association. Essential Fatty Acids. http://www.aoa.org/x11853.xml. (Accessed 5/16/13).
  3. American Optometric Association. Antioxidants and Age Related Eye Disease. http://www.aoa.org/x4729.xml. (Accessed 5/17/13).
  4. Bian, Q, S. Gao, J Zhou, et al. 2012. Lutein and zeaxanthin supplementation reduces photooxidative damage and modulates the expression of inflammation-related genes in retinal pigment epithelial cells. Free Radical Biology & Medicine. 53(6): 1298–307. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22732187 (Accessed 5/20/12).
  5. National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). National Diabetes Statistics, 2011. http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/statistics/#Blindness (Accessed 5/13/13).
  6. NIH. National Eye Institute. Facts About Diabetic Retinopathy http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/diabetic/retinopathy.asp (Accessed 5/13/13).
  7. NIH. National Eye Institute. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Protect Eyes Against Retinopathy, Study Finds. http://www.nei.nih.gov/news/pressreleases/062407.asp (Accessed 5/17/13).
  8. Taylor, Allen. http://sackler.tufts.edu/Faculty-and-Research/Faculty-Profiles/Allen-Taylor-Profile. Phone interview (5/13/13).

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