From a young age we are taught the importance of a healthy diet. Our bodies function best when we eat a balanced diet made up of a variety of fruits, vegetables, with smaller amounts of accompanying starchy foods as well as protein sources such as meat and dairy. But when it comes to looking after your eyes through diet, it can be a minefield of dodging myths and old-wives’ tales that have been passed around over the years. Some include stories and jokes about how carrots can improve your eyesight and how they help you see in the dark. So how do you know whether it’s true, or if it was just a myth? We have been taught that diet is important to protecting and fuelling our bodies. But what foods can really help your eyes? Let us take a look at some foods that can help improve your eye health.
Blueberries are often the hot topic when it comes to nutrition. Antioxidants are their selling point, as they are rich in them, and people often talk about how they are “really good for you”. But what are antioxidants, and do they help improve your eye health? Antioxidants are substances that prevent or slow damage of cells caused by free radicals. Free radicals are single oxygen atoms with unpaired electrons that try to pick up electrons from other cells to become pairs, damaging these other cells in the process. Blueberries have anthocyanins in them, a collection of compounds that have antioxidant effects.
Anthocyanins strengthen the collagen in your eyes. Specifically the collagen in your ciliary muscles. These smooth muscles are located around the lens, the transparent front of your eye, and are responsible for focusing the lens, and adjusting to near and distant objects .
Thanks to these antioxidants, blueberries can also help protect your eyes from ultraviolet (UV) light (emitted from the sun) exposure. UV radiation damages the cells in your skin and eyes, sometimes to the point of that cell’s death or to it becoming cancerous. But anthocyanins are capable of absorbing light in the UV and blue light (also emitted by the sun) regions, and this property helps protect your retina, the tissue that lines the back of your eye, from UV and blue light damage .
If you aren’t a fan of blueberries, don’t worry. You can get your dose of anthocyanins from other purple, blue and dark red fruits, and vegetables. Alternatives to blueberries include cherries, red cabbage, and blackberries which are also rich in anthocyanins.
Blueberries are not the only berries that contain nutrients that are key to your eye health. Strawberries are great sources of folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin C. Increased folate and folic acid intake may also reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). A randomized trial found that among women aged 40 years or older the consumption of folic acid helped to reduce the risk of AMD . Besides strawberries, broccoli, peas, and kidney beans also provide a good source of folate.
Vitamin C is needed to form collagen, which helps maintain the structure of the tissue and muscles in your eyes. The results of a study conducted by the Age Related Eye Disease Study Research Group (AREDS)  showed a “reduced likelihood of [AMD] among those reporting highest beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E intake.” To get this added protection for your eyes, vitamin C can also be found in; lemons, oranges, peppers, and potatoes.
Strawberries are a good source of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals have been found to protect cells from damage that could lead to cancer. But within the eye, this protection may help slow the progression of age-related diseases like cataracts, glaucoma, and AMD. This is because phytochemicals are able “to scavenge free radicals” . Free radicals are atoms or molecules that contain unpaired electrons. They go around retrieving electrons from other cells in the body, in turn damaging those cells. The ability of phytochemicals to scavenge for free radicals decreases the damage free radicals would otherwise cause in the retina, lens and optic nerve, the nerve that transmits neural messages from the retina to the brain. Phytochemicals are also found in pears, celery, and spinach.
What about our orange friends? How key to protecting our eyes are carrots? It turns out that while the myths and stories may have taken the effects of this delicious root vegetable to exaggerated heights, there is some truth to it.
Carrots are a great source of beta-carotene, another antioxidant. Except, unlike anthocyanins, beta-carotene is taken by the body, and converted into vitamin A. Vitamin A is useful in the production of rod and cone cells, which are necessary for seeing in low-lighting and for seeing colours!
Not only do carrots provide nutrients key to eye function, but also contain lutein (another antioxidant!) which can protect the eye from certain diseases. Lutein increases the density of the pigment in the macula, part of the retina at the back of the eye. The macular pigment optical density (MPOD) is the measure of the macular pigment (MP) in the center of the retina. MP protects your eyes by absorbing blue light. In a study conducted by Günther Weigert et al, they found that after giving patients lutein supplements for 6 months their MPOD increased by 27.9% . With the improvement in MPOD, they saw an improvement in visual function in patients with AMD.
Again, if carrots aren’t a favourite of yours, sources of beta-carotene include other yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables and dark leafy greens. Examples of this include sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, and kale.
Just from this quick look into how strawberries, blueberries, and carrots can improve your eyesight, you can see how big of an impact what you eat can have on your eye health. While it can be overwhelming navigating an ideal balanced diet aimed at protecting your eyes, try looking for inventive ways to prepare these fruits and vegetables. Check out some smoothie recipe suggestions that are aimed at including ingredients that your eyes will thank you for! There is also more information on other superfoods that are rich in nutrients key to looking after your eyes.
 Johanna Seddon, M.D., Jennifer Thompson, (2015). Eat Right for Your Sight: Simple, Tasty Recipes that Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration, American Macular Degeneration Foundation.
 Yong Wang, Di Zhang, YiXiang Liu, Dan Wang, Jia Liu, BaoPing Ji. The Photoprotective Effects of Berry-Derived Anthocyanins Against Visible Light Induced Damage in Human Retinal Pigment Epithelial Cells. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, Vol 95, Issue 5, page 936-944. 2014.
 William G Christen, Robert J Glynn, Emily Y Chew, Christine M Albert, JoAnn E Manson. Folic Acid, Pyridoxine, and Cyancobalamin Combination Treatment and Age-Related Macular Degeneration in Women. The Women’s Antioxidant and Folic Acid Cardiovascular Study. 2009.
 Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group. The Relationship of Dietary Carotenoid and Vitamin A, E and C Intake with Age-Related Macular Degeneration in a Case-Control Study. Arch Opthalmol, 125, (9), page 1225-1232. 2007.
 Michael Rhone, Arpita Basu, (2008). Phytochemicals and age-related eye diseases, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 66, Issue 8.
 Günther Weigert, Semira Kaya, Berthold Pemp, Stefan Sacu, Michael Lasta, René Marcel Werkmeister, Nikolaus Dragostinoff, Christian Simader, Gerhard Garhöfer, Ursula Schmidt-Erfurth, Leopold Schmetterer. Effects of Lutein Supplementation on Macular Pigment Optical Density and Visual Acuity in Patients with Age-Related Macular Degeneration. Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, Vol 52, Page 8174-8178. 2011.
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