Food for healthy eyes

Ophthalmologist Dr Eric Mayer gives us some food for thought on nourishing our eyes.

The term ‘eating with your eyes’ implies synesthesia, the holistic enjoyment of food as a multifaceted and integrated sensory experience. But what about ‘eating for your eyes?’ It’s not just the heart and waistline that benefit from a balanced diet – your eyes require proper nutrition to function correctly.

As an ophthalmologist, I find I often need to remind my patients that the rules that apply to the health of their body also apply to their vision. Diet has been studied in the context of age-related macular degeneration, a potentially blinding eye disease. This affects the central part of the retina, called the macula, which gives us our fine vision, allowing us to read, recognise faces and see detail.

I’ll always advise ‘all good things in moderation’. Balance is the key. Knowledge of the components of food is also useful, as is understanding various aspects of our diet.

Eye-food basics

Antioxidants are important. They neutralise free radicals, which are chemicals that can damage cells and tissues. Free radicals can be generated naturally within the body through a cell turnover process, but can also come from the environment (for example, from cigarette smoke, air pollutants and toxins).

The major groups of antioxidants are Vitamin C, tocopherols, carotenoids and flavonoids. These phytochemicals (found in plants) are important and some, particularly the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, are found in high concentration at the macula. These can be sourced from red, orange or yellow fruit and vegetables such as red grapes, pumpkin, squash and corn.

Glutathione is also an important antioxidant, and can be absorbed by eating cabbage, onions, garlic, cauliflower, bok choy, watercress, mustard, and Brussels sprouts.

Fat facts

Saturated fatty acids increase the risk of macular degeneration. Essential fatty acids, however, are important for health. Some key vitamins are found in fats and oils. Vitamin E in particular is rich in antioxidants and can be found in wheat germ oil, sunflower oil or cottonseed oil, as well as nuts such as hazelnuts and almonds.

Omega-3 fats are another oil that your body needs. They can be found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel as well as flax seed oil. These ‘good oils’ may not only help prevent or slow serious disorders such as macular degeneration, but also have many other benefits.

Confused?

You’re not alone. The list of compounds that are important is long, as is the variety of sources from which they can be obtained. Variety is very important. So keep it simple and use this as a guide: try to obtain most of your nutrients through your diet. To do this, include at least two servings of fish per week, include leafy green and colourful vegetables, and add two servings of fruit per day. Sometimes cooking helps release important chemicals from food. Keep it varied and don’t be afraid to try new things – there’s a reason they say variety is the spice of life.

Regular check ups

When it comes to eye health, regular checkups are important. With the majority of serious eye disorders, early diagnosis is extremely important, as treatments are often better at preserving function than reinstating it. With diseases such as macular degeneration, any vision you lose may not be returned to you – however, there are a number of preventative treatments that can slow or even stop the deterioration of your sight.

Meanwhile, keep eating your greens.

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