Carrots are usually what comes to mind when we think of food and eye health, partly because this is one of the first food-health connections many of us learn about in childhood. But even if this wasn’t the case, eating carrots has become synonymous with having good eyesight and healthy eyes.
The reality is that carrots aren’t the only foods to eat to optimize your eye health. Sure, they’re a great source of vitamin A, a key nutrient for eye health, but carrots aren’t the only (or necessarily the best) source. There are several other foods for eye health, thanks to other nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, selenium and omega-3s, that are worth adding to your eating pattern.
Here are eight of the best foods to eat for eye health.
1. Sweet Potatoes
Vitamin A maintains the health of the cornea and is part of the pigment rhodopsin, which enables light to be converted into electrical signals that get interpreted as vision. While carrots are the ones you often hear touted for their vitamin A content, sweet potatoes have three times as much vitamin A activity (one medium baked sweet potato provides 150% of the Daily Value). This is due to provitamin A carotenoids (one of which is beta carotene) which are inactive forms of the vitamin that give deep orange and deep green produce their color and act as antioxidants.
2. Spinach & Kale
Dark leafy greens like kale and spinach are top sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that protect the retina. Acting as antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin absorb a substantial amount of blue light rays, preventing them from entering the interior eye to keep light-induced free radicals from damaging eye cells. Higher intakes of spinach, kale and other dark greens (such as turnip and collard) increase circulating levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, which appears to slow age-related macular degeneration (vision changes associated with the aging process) and may even halt the progression of cataracts.
Eggs are another great source of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, particularly when they’re from chickens fed a nutrient-enriched diet. Eggs naturally contain both lutein and zeaxanthin, but fortified eggs have significantly higher levels that also appear to be more readily absorbed and used by the body. This means regular consumption of those eggs can increase lutein and zeaxanthin levels to optimize and maintain eyesight. One study published in Clinical Nutrition in 2020 found that those who consumed four to six eggs per week over a 15-year period had a 46% reduced risk of developing severe vision loss compared to subjects who consumed one egg or less per week.
Zinc is required for the activation of over 300 enzymes in the body (some of which involve the eyes), maintains the structure and stability of proteins in the retina and protects retina cells to prevent and slow vision loss, along with other antioxidants like selenium. Even though clinical deficiency is rare, research suggests that most people consume inadequate amounts of zinc. This means it’s beneficial to incorporate foods rich in zinc like oysters. Oysters are one of the most concentrated zinc food sources, and they provide other nutrients for eye health like as selenium, copper and omega-3 fatty acids. Not a fan? Animal protein sources (such as meat, seafood and poultry), fortified cereal, beans, nuts and seeds are also good sources.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells throughout the body, including those in the eyes. Oxidative damage caused by environmental exposures to pollution, smoke and harmful rays can slowly take a toll on the cells in the eye and others involved in eyesight, but vitamin E works to halt this damage by neutralizing free radicals. Incorporating more vitamin E-rich foods like almonds is important for eye health, as well as overall health, and almonds are a top source. One ounce of dry-roasted almonds (about 23) provides 45% of daily needs. Other good sources include sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, peanut butter and avocado.
6. Oily Fish
Are your eyes always dry and irritated? Eating oily fish like tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines and salmon, which contain omega-3s, two to three times a week may provide some relief. Dry eye syndrome is caused by inadequate tear production and a lack of tear film over the eyes. While they may seem solely water-based, tears also contain a mucus and oil component, so a lack of essential fatty acids like DHA and EPA may contribute to dry eye symptoms. Research suggests that increasing intake can significantly improve symptoms, thanks to increased tear production and the anti-inflammatory effects generated by omega-3s.
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Papaya gets its pink-orange flesh from lycopene, a carotenoid that appears to slow cataract formation. However, the fruit’s real power player is vitamin C (one small papaya provides over 150% of the recommended daily intake). The eyes have a high metabolic rate (which results in quicker free radical formation) which means cells in the eye have an increased need for antioxidant protection from nutrients like vitamin C. Research also suggests that the vitamin may be able to regenerate vitamin E and other antioxidants in the eye, making vitamin C-rich foods like papaya, citrus, red bell pepper and berries even more beneficial.
Did you know that carbohydrate choices can impact eye health? In the Age-Related Eye Disease Study, individuals who consumed diets comprised of higher-glycemic carbohydrate choices were significantly more likely to have vision loss stemming from age-related macular degeneration. This means swapping higher-glycemic foods (like refined grains, snack foods and beverages with added sugars) for lower-glycemic, higher-fiber choices like beans and whole grains is important. On top of promoting healthy blood sugar regulation, beans (canned and dried) are also a good sources of other important eye nutrients like zinc and B vitamins.