With all the incredible advancements humans have made in medicine, science, communication, and technology, it’s humbling to learn that our most important “machine” — our own body — isn’t always improving at the same pace. What’s more, these other advancements may be at least partially responsible for some of the health concerns billions face.
For example, Dr. Ivan Schwab — a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis and author of Evolution's Witness: How Eyes Evolved — notes that the rates of myopia have skyrocketed over the past three centuries.” He concludes this is likely due to the combination of more reading and close-up work, especially indoors and under artificial light: “Education and myopia seem to be linked, suggesting that when people do a lot of close work, their eyes grow longer — the better to focus up close, but the worse for long-distance vision.”
With that in mind, it’s not all that surprising to learn that experts expect roughly half the world’s population will struggle with myopia by 2050.
Fortunately, you don’t need to just sit back and accept our fate in this regard. For one thing, most people have relatively easy access to quality eyecare specialists and corrective devices like eyeglasses and contact lenses. Laser vision correction can be costly, but it’s also available to people in most developed countries.
But, beyond those measures, there’s actually quite a bit you can do in your daily life to help preserve your vision. One of the most important steps you can take is to eat foods that are rich in the nutrients your eyes need to function at their best.
What your eyes need most
It’s probably not surprising that the dietary recommendations most advantageous to vision fall right in line with the recommendations that promote heart and brain health as well as general wellness and longevity. The same principle held true when we covered the best foods for healthy teeth and gums.
That’s because your eyes don’t live in a vacuum, they’re part of your body and are impacted by everything you take in (or fail to take in). They are especially sensitive to poor circulation and vascular problems since your vision is supported by thousands of tiny blood vessels throughout your eye and especially in the retina. Beyond supporting a clearer vision, a healthy diet can also prevent many eye conditions, including:
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Dry eyes
- Poor night vision
So, maintaining a well-balanced, healthy diet is key to keeping your eyes healthy. The most important point is to include foods that contain a range of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals, known as antioxidants. The most important of these for your eyes are listed below along with the daily intake recommended for adults by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and others:
- Lutein (10 mg)
- Zeaxanthin (2 mg)
- Vitamin A / Beta-carotene (5000 iu)
- Vitamin C (500 mg)
- Vitamin E (400 iu)
- Omega-3 fatty acids (1800 mg)
- Zinc (80 mg)
Of course, nature doesn’t offer a daily multivitamin you can just pop in your mouth to get everything your body needs in one shot. Instead, the most important nutrients are spread across a wide variety of foods, all of which combine to make up a balanced, healthy diet.
Here are some examples of nutritious foods you’ll want to make sure you’re taking in to stave off vision problems:
The best foods for your eyes
Carrots, kale, spinach, collard and turnip greens, dairy products, egg yolks, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, liver, cod liver oil
Citrus fruits (especially kiwi fruit) and juices, bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, bok choy, cauliflower, papayas, strawberries, kale, spinach, squash, peaches
Eggs, whole grains, vegetable oils, sunflower seeds
Spinach, corn, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggs, squash, zucchini
Coldwater fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and rainbow trout; sunflower oil, corn oil, winter squash, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans
Meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, legumes, whole grains, dairy products, summer squash
Spinach, kale, collard and turnip greens, eggs, squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce, peas
Foods rich in Vitamin A
Vitamin A plays an essential role in vision. It is a component of a protein called rhodopsin, which helps the retina to absorb light. Without sufficient Vitamin A, you’ll have serious difficulties seeing in low light and at night. Vitamin A deficiency can also lead to dry eyes. It’s closely connected with another vital nutrient, Beta carotene, which the body uses to make Vitamin A.
Vitamin A and Beta carotene can be found in numerous vegetables like carrots, dark leafy greens, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of both. Cantaloupe and apricots are good sources from the fruit family.
Animal products that contain plenty of Vitamin A include liver, cod liver oil, and eggs. Dairy products are also a good source because most are fortified with Vitamins A and D.
Foods rich in Vitamin C
Vitamin C has numerous health benefits, but when it comes to your vision, its role in keeping blood vessels healthy is key. Some studies suggest it can also contribute to preventing or postponing the development of cataracts. It’s important to note that heat can break Vitamin C down, so wherever possible, try eating the following foods either raw or lightly cooked.
The best sources of Vitamin C are colorful fruits and vegetables. Red bell peppers offer the most of the nutrient per calorie, although other vegetables like bok choy, cauliflower, dark leafy greens, squash, and sweet potatoes aren’t far behind. Citrus fruits, strawberries, peaches, and papayas are also excellent sources of Vitamin C.
While it’s always best to get your nutrition from healthy foods, Vitamin C supplements are inexpensive and have been shown to be effective in informal trials.
Foods rich in Vitamin E
Vitamin E has been shown to protect the cells in the eye by eliminating free radicals, unstable molecules that can break down healthy eye tissue. Free radical damage is largely to blame for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataract formation. Unlike some other nutrients on this list, your body cannot produce Vitamin E, so it needs to be consumed.
Some great sources of Vitamin E include nuts and seeds (including most nut butters), dark leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and avocados. Many grain-based products are fortified with Vitamin E, making them a worthy source as well.
Eggs are the only animal source that provides a significant amount of Vitamin E.
Foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin
Both lutein and zeaxanthin are specialized forms of Vitamin A that are particularly important to eye health, as they have both been shown to reduce the risk of chronic eye diseases, including AMD and cataracts. Of the 600 carotenoids found in nature, only lutein and zeaxanthin are deposited in high quantities in the retina (macula) of the eye where they form pigments that filter harmful blue light and help protect and maintain healthy cells in the eyes.
Once again, dark leafy greens are a key source of these vital antioxidants. Other good plant-based sources include squash, broccoli, brussels sprouts, zucchini, and corn.
Eggs are again the only representative of the animal-based foods to contain these nutrients.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. Without sufficient omega-3, you may experience dry eyes. More importantly, omega-3 deficiency has been linked to retinopathy, glaucoma, and AMD.
The best sources of this essential fat include cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, and tuna, as well as shellfish like oysters. Fish oil supplements may offer benefits if you’re unable to eat enough seafood.
However, there are some vegetable sources as well, including walnuts, soybeans, flax seeds, winter squash, and chia seeds.
Foods rich in zinc
Zinc is a “helper molecule” that’s vital to eye health because it carries Vitamin A from the liver to the retina where it’s turned into the protective pigment, melanin. Zinc concentrates in the retina and surrounding vascular tissue where it’s been linked to delaying age-related loss of sight and macular degeneration.
Like omega-3 fatty acids, fish and shellfish are among the very best sources of zinc. Oysters, for instance, offer more zinc per ounce than any other edible source on the planet. But, plenty of other animal products are also good sources, including beef, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
While it’s not as concentrated in plant-based sources, you can get quite a bit of zinc from chickpeas, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, lentils, and summer squash. Whole grains also contain some zinc.
With some planning and creativity, you can make a vibrant, varied, and delicious eating plan out of the options discussed in this list. And, at the same time, you can help preserve your precious sight for years to come.