Did you know that what you eat can have a direct affect on your eye health and vision? Your eyes need many nutrients in order to work optimally, as well as to help protect them from damage. Given how important our sight is to our daily lives and our wellbeing, we should all be doing whatever we can to nourish our eyes.
Here are some of our top foods for great eye health.
Green veggies such as spinach, rocket, kale and chard are high in a plant compound called lutein. Lutein is a carotenoid – it’s in the same family as beta-carotene found in orange vegetables. But lutein has a very specific role for our eyes: it actually becomes concentrated in the macula – the part of the retina in the eye that is responsible for our central, sharpest vision. It’s thought to help protect the macula against damaging blue light, protecting our eyesight – and even helping to prevent macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. Another carotenoid called zeaxanthin found in green and yellow veggies is also present in the macula, and may play a similar role. To get a good daily dose of these powerful nutrients, aim to eat at least one serving of green leafy vegetables a day.
Lutein and zeaxanthin supplements are also available and can be a good way to give your eyes extra protection.
Fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. Like lutein, DHA is concentrated in the retina of our eyes. It’s vital for visual development in infants, as well as continued good vision throughout our lives. The omega-3 fats in oily fish are also beneficial for our brain and heart, of course. Again, fish oil supplements can be a useful way to top up on your omega-3 DHA.
Like green vegetables, yellow-coloured ones are often a rich source of the eye-protecting carotenoid lutein. Butternut squash is a great example. It’s also delicious! Cut it into wedges, coat it in coconut oil and roast it like sweet potato. Or make soups from it, add it to stews, or put it in a frittata.
Eggs – especially the yolks – contain several vital nutrients for our eyes. For starters, the yolks are another source of lutein. They are also one of the best sources of vitamin B2, another vital nutrient for eye health.
But there’s a particularly important reason that egg yolks are a superfood for our eyes: they are one of the few foods that are a good source of true vitamin A, in the form of retinol. Although vegetables are often said to contain vitamin A, this is not strictly the case: they only contain beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. In some people, the conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A can be very low, leaving you potentially deficient in vitamin A even if you eat tons of veggies. True vitamin A is only found in animal foods – one of them being eggs. If you can, go for organic and free-range eggs for the highest nutrient content. And never, ever throw out the yolks – they are by far the best part of the egg!
Our eyes are particularly delicate and vulnerable to damage from light. The anthocyanins in berries are thought to provide valuable antioxidant protection for our eyes. Most research has been done on bilberries, which are a close relative of blueberries. But bilberries can be difficult to get hold of as they are not generally cultivated and only grow wild. So blueberries can be the next best – although if you can find wild blueberries or true bilberries, even better! Bilberry supplements may also be beneficial if you’re particularly concerned about your eye health.
Pumpkin seeds are one of our best sources of zinc. A true multi-purpose mineral, zinc is found in high amounts in the retina, and plays several vital roles in good vision, including acting as an antioxidant to protect the delicate tissues in the eye.1 Keep a big jar of pumpkin seeds at home – you can sprinkle them over porridge, stir them into natural yoghurt, add them to homemade smoothies, mix them into salads, or coat them in soya sauce and roast them gently for ten minutes – they make a delicious snack! Pumpkin seed ‘butter’ (made from crushed pumpkin seeds) is another great way to include more pumpkin seeds into your diet – it’s delicious spread on oatcakes as a snack, or added to smoothies.
Liver is one of the most nutrient-rich foods we can eat. It’s a fantastic source of vitamin A, and is incredibly rich in B vitamins, including B2. If you find the taste of liver unpleasant, look for a recipe for liver pâté, which can be delicious. Start with chicken liver or lamb’s liver for the mildest taste; and go for organic liver for the best nutrient content.
- Grahn BH et al. Zinc and the eye. J Am Coll Nutr. 2001 Apr;20(2 Suppl):106-18.