What is the best food for eye health?
If you’re like most people, your answer is carrots. Many of us have been told from childhood that carrots benefit the eyes, and eating them will help us see better, especially in the dark.
There is some truth to this. Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body, and vitamin A is essential for eye health. But unless you have a severe vitamin A deficiency, rare in the US, carrots alone probably won’t improve your night vision or overall vision.
So, what are the best foods for eye health? Let’s take a look.
What Are the Best Vegetables for Eye Health?
Vegetables are chock full of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fats, plus hundreds of phytonutrients that give them distinctive colors, flavors, and health properties.
Carotenoids are a family of phytonutrients that are particularly important for eye health. They are powerful antioxidants that protect your eyes against oxidative stress by neutralizing light-induced free radicals that can lead to inflammation and cell death.
Beta-carotene is the best known of the carotenoids. It definitely has vision benefits, as noted above, and I encourage regular servings of carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and other yellow-orange produce. Yet, when it comes to eye health, three other carotenoids deserve top billing.
Lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin have unique properties that make them indispensable for eye health. They are the only carotenoids concentrated in the macula, an area in the retina responsible for central vision. They protect the macula and retina by absorbing potentially damaging high-energy blue wavelengths of light. In other words, they serve as your eyes’ internal blue light filters.
A high intake of lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin has been linked with a lower risk of developing macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in older people. Supplements containing concentrated extracts of these carotenoids have also been shown in clinical trials to slow the progression of early macular degeneration.
That’s why I put green leafy vegetables at the top of the list of all the great foods for eye health. They are, hands down, the most concentrated sources of lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin. They also provide beta-carotene, fiber, vitamins, and minerals as an added benefit.
The darker the leafy green, the higher the lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin content. Kale has the most, followed by turnip greens, collard greens, and spinach. Other sources include broccoli, lettuce, corn, peas, and Brussels sprouts.
Are Eggs Good for Eye Health?
Eggs have been described as nature’s perfect food because they contain a wide variety of nutrients. Each egg has six grams of protein, all essential amino acids, and an array of vitamins and minerals, including A, B12, D, E, folate, selenium, and iron.
They are also rich in choline, an essential nutrient most Americans fail to get in adequate amounts. Choline is known for its role in brain development and cognitive function, but recent research reveals links between choline deficiency and eye diseases.
Plus, egg yolks contain lutein and zeaxanthin. These protective carotenoids give yolks their lovely golden color. Also, the fat in eggs makes these carotenoids highly bioavailable.
Can eating eggs for your eye health increase your risk of heart disease? For decades eggs got a bad reputation because it was believed that their saturated fat and cholesterol content contributed to heart disease, which is not true. A large meta-analysis published in the BMJ in 2020 concluded, “...moderate egg consumption (up to one egg per day) is not associated with cardiovascular disease risk overall….”
What Fruit Is Good for Eyes?
Fruit is another good source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and some fruits provide phytonutrients with proven benefits for eye health. The best fruits for your eyes include:
Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, bilberries, black currants, and elderberries are concentrated sources of polyphenol anthocyanins, another family of phytonutrients that stabilize free radicals and reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. They are also low in calories, with reasonable amounts of fiber and a low glycemic index, meaning they won’t cause a spike in blood sugar as many fruits do.
- Avocados: Avocados boast more than 20 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, including lutein and zeaxanthin. This fruit (yes, it is classified as a fruit rather than a vegetable) does have a fair amount of fat and calories, but most of the fat is monounsaturated, the healthy kind present in olive oil. Plus, this fat content boosts the absorption of lutein, zeaxanthin, and other fat-soluble nutrients.
Should You Eat Omega-3 for Your Eyes?
Foods rich in omega-3s also rank high on the list of best foods for eye health. These essential fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory effects, and inflammation is an underlying factor in virtually all chronic diseases, including eye conditions.
Omega-3s are essential for staving off dry eye syndrome. They have positive effects on the meibomian glands in your eyelids, which produce oils that prevent tears from evaporating too quickly. Harvard researchers conducted a large study involving 32,470 women and reported a 17% reduced risk of dry eye syndrome in those who ate the most omega-3s.
Because retinal cells have the highest concentration of omega-3s in your entire body, these fats also play a role in retinal health.
Salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, and other cold-water fish are known for their omega-3 fatty acid content, but you can also get them in flax, chia, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Walnuts make a great snack, and flax, chia, and hemp seeds can be ground and added to salads, cereals, and baked goods or mixed in smoothies.
A final word on omega-3s. For optimal health, you must have a balanced intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s, the kind in most vegetable and seed oils, are also essential, but the standard American diet is loaded with omega-6s and low in omega-3s. That’s why it is important to make a concerted effort to eat more omega-3-rich foods.
What You Eat Matters
There’s an old Ayurvedic proverb from the traditional medicine system of India: “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.”
What you eat matters—not only for your eyes but for your overall health. Leafy greens, eggs, berries, avocados, and foods rich in omega-3 are among the best foods for eye health. Make a point to add them to your daily diet.
To learn more about these and other nutritious eye-healthy foods, check out my new book, “Beyond Carrots- Best Foods for Eye Health A to Z” and the Best Foods for Eye Health A–Z videos on my YouTube channel.