Eye Health

The quick answer:  To protect your vision, eat less sugar and more colorful fruits and vegetables.


A side benefit of this blog is the emails we receive from interesting people, like Alena Skarina, the Siberia-born illustrator.  Alena admired our blog and generously offered to contribute some original art.  As our photographer was on maternity leave, I suggested the subject of this post, eye health.  This touched a chord as Alena and her family had traveled from Siberia to Moscow in 1989—the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union—because her father needed vision-saving cataract surgery.  When she was 13, Alena immigrated to Canada and at 17 was accepted by a prestigious illustration agency.    Incidentally, Alena reports that Russians consider the rosehip a rich source of vitamin C, an antioxidant.  As a child she was given rosehip syrup to boost her immune system during colds; her mother still grows rosehip bushes in her Canadian garden.

Seeing the World

Our eyes are incredible instruments, processing torrents of data from morning ‘til night, day after unending day.  Everything we see passes through the lens, which continually changes shape to focus near and far. 

The lens transmits the world to the retina on the back of our eye, especially the macula, which provides our sharpest vision.  Though physically tiny the lens and macula handle an immense amount of data, and both are subject to disease from oxidative stress and inflammation.  The two common diseases of the eye in the U.S. are age-related:

  • Cataracts in the lens—lens replacement is now the #1 surgery.
  • Macular degeneration (AMD)—the #1 cause of irreversible blindness in older people.

Though the mechanism of these diseases is unknown, they have similar risk factors—if you get one you’re likely to get the other.  They also share preventative factors.  For lifelong vision, it’s best to reduce risk, the enhance what prevents.

Risk factors, in addition to age, include smoking, excessive alcohol, high blood pressure, diabetes, overweight and obesity, UV exposure, etc.  (Please note that age-related hearing loss shares some of these risk factors.)  Regarding UV exposure, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats can protect if you're in the sun too much.  Though excess UV is a risk, we have previously suggested you consider getting a little mid-day sun as you exercise because of the importance of vitamin D.  The sun has been shining on man for millennia so though lacking hard proof, I suspect that the UV danger is less about sunshine and more about a diet lacking in protective nutrients, especially antioxidants. 

To date, the Healthy Changes have addressed the risk factors of smoking, alcohol, high blood pressure, overweight/obesity, and diabetes, as well as the benefits of regular exercise. Protective antioxidants merit further attention.


In the post Aging With Grace we discussed how the oxidation of glucose provides energy for our cells but throws off free radicals.  Free radicals are molecules that lack an electron and which wreak havoc within the cell until one is supplied.  Antioxidants—mainly found in plant foods—heal the free radicals and protect cells, especially those in our eye. 

Carotenes—over 600 types have been discovered so far—are an important class of antioxidants.  They are fat-soluble molecules found in fruits and vegetables that provide the colorful and protective pigments in plants.  Foods rich in carotenes, by color:

  • Orange/yellow: sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, pumpkin, winter squash, oranges, mangos, apricots;
  • Dark green: spinach, parsley, broccoli, and various greens,
  • Red: tomatoes (including tomato juice), bell peppers, radishes, and watermelon.

Eye Studies

There is a tragic lack of awareness of how to prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.  Several long-term eye disease studies started around the world in the ‘90s when the rise of cataracts and AMD became obvious.  These studies tend to be academic exercises, as the initial interest is to study the progression of the disease, rather than prevent disease in the first place.   They have however documented the risk factors noted above and made cautious recommendations about diet.  Several articles stand out:

A 1995 article by J.M. Seddon et al, found those consuming the most dietary carotenoids had 43% reduced risk of AMD, and two carotene antioxidants—leutein and zeaxanthin, found in spinach and other dark greens—were especially helpful.

A 2006 review of mostly animal studies, titled “Oxidation, antioxidants and cataract formation: a literature review”, concluded that “dietary antioxidants are central in retarding cataractogenesis.”

A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a higher risk of AMD in high glycemic index foods, meaning a diet high in sugars and refined grains.  As a high glycemic diet is typically includes processed foods at the expense of whole foods, eating fruits and vegetables offers better protection.

Finally, the 2010 study “Carotenoids in Age-Related Eye Disease Study (CAREDS), part of the Women’s Health Initiative, found a 37% reduced risk of cataracts for those reporting a higher proportion of carontoids in their diet. 

Healthy Change

For protective antioxidants, we should replace sugary processed foods with colorful fruits and vegetables.  Dark greens were included in the Healthy Change to eat green salads daily.  The red fruits and vegetables will be covered in a future post, today we focus on the color orange (I know, it sounds like Sesame Street):

Please comment
.  We have just 16 posts (and Healthy Changes) left in the year.  Do you have a subject you want discussed?  Please make a request.  (Yes, milk is on the list.)  We have the rest of the year planned, but would insert any topic with popular demand. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (18)

I would appreciate a link on the sidebar that has a complete list of the healthy changes thus far, adding the new one each week. I was introduced to your blog only a few months ago, and it would be nice to have them all in one place.
Another thing that would be nice would be a post listing your menu for a week, as following every change can feel overwhelming with the food world that we live in. An example of how it's done would be appreciated.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Elizabeth, you're right, enough people have asked for a list of the healthy changes that we should just do it. Posting more menus is also a good idea. We're reluctant to do it every week, as that implies we've invented the perfect diet for everyone, which is impossible. But we can add some, perhaps a few for each season of the year. We also plan to add some recipes, focusing on "gateway" recipes that open the door to better diets. Super good suggestions.

September 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

As always .. love this blog!!! Can I have Skip's bread and the Granola recipes in the recipe section on this blog please? I need to make a new copy and I can't find it on this blog - even after using "search"


September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

That illustration is awesome! Now that you mention lutein, I remember seeing it promoted in multivitamins for eye health. Americans love to feel like they're being healthy without doing anything hard :)

I already suggested a post on kids' diets, but I was thinking about it the other day and got to wondering if other cultures around the world give their children separate food from adults like we do here (chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, go-gurt, etc) or if they just expect them to eat what everyone else eats. I wonder if we do this because kids are picky or if kids are picky because they have a choice and for some reason choose the tasteless, processed food. I'll admit, when my 3 year old son will only eat three bites of dinner, I'm tempted to give him something else so he'll at least eat something. I wonder if readers from other cultures have thoughts on this.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Lindsey, I overheard some moms refer to another mom as a "blue box" cook. I think it was a reference to using packaged products, like Kraft mac 'n cheese. Once on these high G.I. foods, other tastes may not appeal, or seem sweet enough. Winning the support of young eaters is a real test of mom's leadership skills but I think kids get it, when nutrition is explained.

Heather, I'm using the recipe that Nancy O. sent and liking it. (Soaking the dough in the liquid for a couple of hours seems to bring out the taste.) You can find Skip's and Nancy's (look in the 2nd page of comments) recipe here: http://www.wordofwisdomliving.com/home/our-daily-bread.html

You can find Katie's Granola (which we even sprinkle on Skip's Breakfast Compote) here: http://wordofwisdomliving.squarespace.com/home/katies-granola.html

We'll move Nancy's bread a and Katie's Granola recipes into the recipe section.

September 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Love the artwork!

Thanks for the info, especially related to AMD. I have a couple older relatives (now passed) that had it and I've heard it is hereditary. Do you know if this is true?

Regardless, your orange fruits/vegetables reminder is valuable.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Lisa, there is a familial link to AMD but we don't really know how much is genetic and how much is from how the family eats and lives. As a rule, the things you can control have a greater influence than what you can't change. People like you, and I, with a family history should live the best we can. Best to you.

September 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell


I don't know if you'll see this or not, but I had to respond to your comment. I definitely think picky eaters are made, not born! I've just finished reading a book called "Baby-Led Weaning" that talks all about babies and food, how in just the last several decades we've been led to believe that babies have to start eating foods that are pureed and bland. Really, this isn't the case! There's no reason babies, who are just starting to eat solids, can't eat what everyone else is eating (with certain exceptions, of course, like milk, honey, nuts, etc.) They won't get much in at first, but they will still depend on breastmilk or formula as main nourishment, and over time will learn to "really eat". The benefit of this is that we can train them to enjoy and desire good wholesome food, a variety of flavors, no more making separate meals for the kids! It makes brilliant perfect sense!

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodi

So many things to address! First, thank you for continuing to post wonderful, thoughtful articles. It's making a huge difference in my efforts to feed myself and my family well. Also, thank you to your new artist for the illustration!

As far as new topics go, could you address traditional foods? I was introduced to the Weston A Price foundation a year ago and know you've referenced their work as well. But, I'm curious about the amount and value of the lacto-fermented foods. Gratefully, soaking our nuts and grains for bread actually lead to a better taste. So, I don't mind doing it too much, regardless of the nutritional outcome. But, I haven't delved into the fermented foods yet and would like to know your opinion of their value.

Regarding picky eaters - well, each child is different and is entitled to their own preferences. I still remember trying to gag down some foods as a kid that I now love (not advocating forcing kids to eat foods they hate, but saying that tastes change and kids are entitled to not need to suffer through dinner). My kids get small servings of everything, 'kid friendly' or not. They are expected to taste everything. They don't have to like it or finish it to leave the table. But, they do have to try. We call them 'taster-bites'. Finally, when dealing with kids, it's a small thing. But, most kids really do like hummus. If there's a picky eater around, it's a healthy food that may get them dipping wheat bread or even a veggie or two. Or, they can be like my daughter and just lick it off whatever it's being served with and leave the veggies on the plate. *sigh* But, specific to Lindsey's comment, I try to not pull punches with my kids. Kids in India love curry, why not mine too? I keep the hot stuff out and always make sure there's something at the table I know they'll eat, but I want to raise kids I'll enjoy as adults. So, I make them try my favorite foods. Selfish, I know ;)

Finally, this blog has helped me with kid-habits. Worth a visit.


Again, many thanks!

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

I would love to hear more about pre conception nutrition and what are the best foods to eat while pregnant. Love your inspirational work - keep it up!

September 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLynnc

Skip, kudos to you and your family for all the effort you have put in this year educating the bewildered masses! I started following you on Week 1 and have enjoyed every single post. Like others, I would love a glimpse of a sample week's menu.

Additionally, I would pay good money to buy your annual blog in a book. Is there a way you can publish your blog into a little book that we could purchase? It's such a good reference and I have gone to it frequently throughout the year.

Lastly, I think it's completely endearing that you always refer to your spouse as "beautiful wife." Thank you for being a gentleman, as well as a nutritional genius.

Best to you and please keep this up for 2012!

September 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Melissa, thanks for your kind comment, and for 36 weeks of support. We have talked about a book and made a proposal to two Utah publishers; they're cautious, not sure how deep the interest in nutrition runs. So maybe step one is to build interest through the blog, helped by the efforts of like-minded people. We're not quitting; we'll reboot for 2012. Best to you.

September 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Could we talk about sleep? I'm really suffering in this area right now, from many factors, I know. Diet can influence it, and certainly what kinds of food we eat before bedtime, right? Even though my 5 month old sleeps all night now, I feel like I will never sleep well again. But I'm desperate to get better sleep, because I know how much it can make or break my health and life overall.

September 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodi

Thank you for the great resources here. So appreciated your survey of the grocery store's breakfast cereal aisle. I can stop searching for a "healthy" cereal my sons and I will agree on because it doesn't really exist. Back to Irish oats!

I too would love to see the habits listed on separate side bar. I'm also curious of their order---was it random, based on priorities (you should change to habit #1 first, etc) or based on ease or some combination?

More recipes too, and I'd love to see some joint posts written by your children---especially those who are now parents of little ones, to see how they apply these goals to daily life (meal planning, shopping, eating out, birthdays, etc).

Thanks again!

September 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeirdre

Deirdre, you asked about the logic of the order of the Healthy Changes. There is a logic to the order, but it's not perfect, we're always looking to make improvements. Also, because people are different, some will have reason to jump around. The first priority was to address the most harmful processed foods: slash the intake of sugar, eliminate trans fats and restrict unhealthy fats (refined vegetable oils). The next priority was to sequentially add whole grains and other whole foods, especially vegetables. Our bad food habit is deeply rooted so five healthy changes chop away at our sugar intake while eight increase our intake of vegetables. The longer you've eaten sweetened modern foods, the harder it is to return to eating vegetables. Because we're addressing a very large problem, continuous improvement is our working strategy.

Jodi, you asked about addressing sleep. We will, it's coming up in three weeks. It's hard, how the needs of a new baby leave mom sleep-deprived. There must be a wise purpose to it. Sometimes the cycle of life is disrupted by the baby's arrival, or by other stressful challenges, and it takes time to regain our equilibrium. Sleep is important to the parent's health, as well as the child's. Burning the midnight oil isn't the virtue we've imagined. Best to see your doctor if you're not getting better. Thanks for writing.

September 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

If it's not too late to suggest, or ask-
I'm interested to hear your take on fermented foods. I know that is a broad topic, but can also be a good place to start. THanks for your consideration.

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Carter

Hi Skip - continuing to read and love your blog. I've been following since February, and your posts continue to clarify/simplify all the information out there. I've been thinking, and a few things I'd love your point of view on for future posts:

1. Organic vs. non-organic
2. Soy - lots of questions around whether or not it's healthy for men, and I'm confused about tofu and tempeh and whether or not they're good for us
3. Healthy eating and pregnancy (managing food aversions)

Currently pregnant, and having a difficult time preparing the healthy meals I'd come to know and love...more interested in breads and pastas, and in all honesty not all of them are whole grain anymore. Frustrating since I was doing such a good job leading up to the pregnancy. Beans - no longer interested. Greens - have to hide them in other things, and even then I know I'm not getting enough. Haven't prepared broccoli in almost three weeks. My home made granola, former favorite meal of the day with plain yogurt and blueberries? No thank you, can't even get it down. So in a nutshell, pregnancy = food aversions for me and many other women, as well as overall exhaustion which gets in the way of meal planning and preparation. We've ordered pizza once/week for the last few weeks because I can't get it together to get dinner on the table anymore, and frankly it's one of very few things that sounds good.

Like the others who've asked, would also love a list of the healthy changes to review and check progress. Up until the pregnancy, this house was on track.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Hi Skip - one more thought. How about a post on caffeine?

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

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