Baby boomers are aging, and progressive eye diseases are increasing.
Macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, glaucoma — even the comparatively benign dry-eye syndrome and allergy eyes — are all on the rise.
And poor nutrition is implicated in many of these most common ailments. The good news is that smart food choices, comprehensive meal planning and supplements containing vitamins, minerals, plant pigments and herbs can help many people avoid vision loss.
Anti-oxidants and phytochemicals
Some anti-oxidants — nutrients and plant chemicals that prevent damage to our cells and genes — have been shown to slow age-related macular degeneration, known as AMD, the leading cause of blindness in those over 50. They may also slow cataract formation, which clouds the eye's lens.
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), a major clinical trial sponsored by the National Eye Institute in 2001, has changed thinking about the link between your stomach and your eyes.
The study showed that vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc and copper slowed AMD by 28 percent.
The findings were so significant that the National Institutes of Health has launched the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2. Nearly 100 clinical centers are now seeking 4,000 study participants ages 50 to 85 who have AMD, so they can do more nutritional research.
Dr. Christine Gonzales, an eye surgeon in Ashland and associate professor of ophthalmolgy at UCLA says, "the things we advise for cardiovascular health are most important for macular degeneration — anti-oxidants, low-fat diets and omega-3 fatty acids."
"The No. 1 modifiable risk factor is smoking," says Gonzales. Smoking disrupts the body's use of carotenoids, plant pigments that are essential to visual acuity. Though beta-carotene is the best-known member of this family, lutein and zeaxanthin are "carotenoid cousins" under the vitamin A umbrella that appear to protect against AMD.
Up to 80 percent of the carotenoids in the retina are lutein and zeaxanthin, though another phytochemical (plant chemical) superstar — lycopene — also is present. We get lutein and zeaxanthin from corn, eggs, papayas, mangos, spinach, chard, watercress, collards, kale and other greens.
Lycopene comes from tomatoes and watermelon.
The best way to get all the anti-oxidants, nutrients and phytochemicals we need to protect our eyes, Gonzalez says, is from food.
Visual enemy #2: refined carbs
High-sugar diets filled with so-called fast carbohydrates are visual enemy No. 2. Refined carbohydrates that break down into simple sugars are a factor in the thickening of the eye's lens, cataracts, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, a deterioration of the retina associated with the neo-American scourge of diabetes.
Another major disadvantage of refined carbs is that they are low in the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals critical to eye health. Replacing several servings per day of fast carbs with leafy greens, fruits, beans and other more nutritious, colorful foods is a key tenet of the nutritional approach to eye health.
Dr. Gonzales calls it "the key for the future."
Dr. Donald Carroll, an optometrist in Morton, Wash., agrees.
"The standard of care for eye doctors has been evolving with nutritional counseling for macular degeneration," Carroll says. "Medicare has just recently come out with a provider quality review initiative that actually recommends" when patients have macular degeneration ... they should take the AREDS formula.
Food for your eyes
Since your diet is — literally — in your hands, take a good look at what's on your plate.
Focus on whole grains. Turn from the sandwich to the salad. Top it with beans, avocados, parsley and olive oil. Steam seasonal greens like kale and collards. Look in ethnic and vegetarian recipe books to healthfully dress up greens. Eat a pile of mixed sautéed veggies with a couple of local eggs or combine it all into an omelet. Seek out organic, local produce, which will have higher levels of vision-enhancing phytochemicals.
Finish the meal with blueberries. The purplish pigments in blueberries, blackberries, red grapes and wine, known as anthocyanins, discourage wet macular degeneration. They strengthen blood vessels and increase their flexibility. Blueberries also are a powerful anti-inflammatory, like lutein, and reduce blood pressure. For clients with AMD, diabetic retinopathy or cataracts, anthocyanin-rich foods and supplements are crucial.
Cut through the fat
Good fats may be as important as total fat intake. For good vision, focus on omega-3 fatty acids, especially from fish, which are known to nourish the retina's photoreceptors. Essential fatty acids also reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure and reduce general cardiovascular risk, all associated with AMD and other progressive eye diseases.
Getting the nutrients is critical, but absorbing them is of equal importance. Eating good fats with foods containing lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene aid absorption. Envision salmon, chard and baked garnet yams or spinach sautéed in olive oil (with garlic, of course).
Carroll's wife, Katherine, who runs a mostly vision-oriented nutrition practice within her husband's optometry office, says that for getting lutein up to the macula, it's important to increase your intake of high-density lipo-proteins, the so-called "good cholesterol."
"We're finding that since lutein is transferred on HDL cholesterol particles, getting HDL levels up is important," she says.
Almonds, olives and avocados are known to help raise HDL.
Think flowers and seeds
Aside from a man's prostate, zinc is found in highest quantities in the retina. Good zinc sources are pumpkin seeds, beef and oysters. Oysters have more zinc per serving than any other food. Pumpkin seeds also provide magnesium, which will further support healthy blood pressure and arterial dilation.
Spices and flowers are great sources of anti-oxidants and vision-enhancing phytochemicals. Commercial lutein typically comes from calendula flowers. Stamens of crocus (saffron), petals of dandelion, chive, nasturtium, squash — the list of flower edibles is vast. A head of broccoli, for instance, is just a big mass of flower buds.
Breaking the bank doesn't have to be part of preserving vision, but to most of us, the sense of sight is so prized that we'd do what it takes to preserve it. Fortunately, you can fill up your garden, fridge and belly with visionary assets.