By Alia Hoyt
When I was 15 years old, I walked right into a wall because I hadn’t put my contacts in yet that morning. Two broken toes later, my mother waggled a reproachful finger at me and said again that I should’ve eaten more carrots growing up. As it turns out, although carrots are high in plant carotenoids that produce vitamin A -- which is helpful for maintaining eye health at any age -- they are actually not at the top of the ocular superstar food list. Read on to see which foods are most beneficial for your sight:
Spinach is the snack that made Popeye strong, but if the cartoon were made today, it would probably give him super-sight. Spinach and its cousin kale contain large quantities of the nutrient lutein, which has been linked to a reduced risk of cataract surgery. Plus, it contains carotenoids beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, both of which are important for eye health.
These slimy little suckers are packed with zinc, a mineral that is often underappreciated and under-consumed. In fact, they actually contain more zinc than almost any other food. “Zinc helps bring vitamin A from the liver, where it’s stored, to the retina in your eye to produce melanin, a protective eye pigment,” says Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN and one of upwave's diet and nutrition experts. “Oysters have nearly 500 percent of the daily value of zinc,” she adds.
Green tea is more than just a tasty beverage. It actually packs powerful protective capabilities for your peepers. “Green tea is a rich source for a variety of flavonoids,” says David Katz, MD, MPH, a diet and nutrition expert for upwave and author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What makes Us Well. “This family of antioxidants helps protect the retina from the damage of solar radiation,” he says. In animal studies, green tea consumption has also been associated with lower risk of certain types of glaucoma. So make a cup already. You’ll thank me when you reach your golden years, eye-problem free.
Maybe it’s time to keep the holiday nutcracker handy year-round. Walnuts are a rich source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, which are different from the variety found in seafood. They may also help to maintain vascular health like blood flow and lipid levels, which is critical to how the eyes, as well as the rest of the body, functions.
The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are regarded by many experts as some of the most important nutrients for preventing age-related eye diseases because both protect the macula of the eye. “This is especially critical in older people whose diets lack the nutrients that make them more susceptible to age-related macular degeneration,” says Kimberly Reed, OD, FAAO, Director, Ocular Nutrition Clinic at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry. “Pumpkin is a really good source of lutein and zeaxanthin, an overlooked food that is readily available in canned form.” This wonder fruit is also a fantastic source of vitamin A. Many people add pumpkin to baked goods like muffins and brownies, but it can also enhance the nutrition and flavor of soups, stews or chili, in small to moderate amounts.
Readily found in dried form in the Asian section of most supermarkets, goji berries are the sleeper food of the eye health world. “They have the highest content of zeaxanthin of any food we know,” says Reed. “You can rehydrate them by soaking [them] overnight in tea or water, and add [them] to cereal or oatmeal in the morning.” Some people like them chewy and dried, though, so try goji berries both ways to figure out your personal preference.
There’s a reason omega-3 fatty acids, commonly known as fish oils, get so much attention -- they’re stacked with health-related superpowers. In the case of eye health, omega-3s found in seafood stabilize cell structure and facilitate communication to the cells. “Fatty acids that are found in fish like salmon help lower the risk of macular degeneration in adults,” explains Kaufman. As an added bonus, nutrients in salmon also protect against glaucoma and dry eye.
At the end of the day, eating to maintain eye health isn’t all that different from regular healthy eating. “These nutrients come typically from a balanced diet, in particular [one] rich in brightly colored plants,” explains Katz. “One of the best ways to protect your eyes is to eat well for your whole body in general,” he says.
Bon appétit. I’m off to feast my eyes on a nice can of spinach.