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.
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.
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.