It is important to keep our eyes healthy as we age. Cataracts affect almost half of adults older than 75, causing blurred vision. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in people older than 55. Avoiding smoking and reducing sunlight exposure can reduce your risk for developing eye problems. If you have diabetes, keeping blood sugar levels in excellent control also will keep your eyes healthier.

Food also can be a natural benefit to the eyes. Nutrition researchers have identified several protective antioxidant nutrients that help the eyes fight off harmful and damaging free radicals. These free radicals may be contributing factors in the development of both cataracts and AMD.

Vitamin E is a familiar antioxidant vitamin that can be found in peanut butter and peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, avocado, soybeans, wheat germ, and vegetable oils. Stir wheat germ into hot oatmeal for a hearty breakfast, add avocado slices to sandwiches and sauté dinner’s stir-fry vegetables with grapeseed oil.

A cataract-protective vitamin is vitamin C. This water-soluble vitamin also may slow the progression of AMD. It is found in plentiful amounts in certain fruits and vegetables, including oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, kiwi, melons, strawberries, bell peppers, potatoes, spinach and other greens, tomatoes, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Enjoy grapefruit sections at breakfast, loads of baby spinach and tomato slices packed into lunchtime’s pita pocket tuna salad sandwich, and oven-roasted Brussels sprouts for supper.

Don’t forget the zinc. This essential trace mineral has been found to be protective against AMD. Strive to include zinc-containing foods such as oysters, lean meats, nuts, beans, yogurt, and fortified breakfast cereals often in your diet. Healthy eye-protective snacks that will boost your zinc intake could be a handful of nuts or hummus made from chick peas.

Finally, two antioxidant plant pigments, lutein and zeaxanthin, are found in very colorful produce. Shop for deep green, yellow, blue, red, purple and orange fruits and vegetables such as kale, spinach, collard greens, turnip and beet greens; broccoli; red, yellow and orange bell peppers, ruby red cherries, tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries; beets, purple cabbage and plums; blueberries; and carrots and sweet potatoes.

We think of the omega-3 fatty acids protecting our vascular system, but research shows that there are eye benefits also. The best sources of omega 3s are oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel; ground flaxseeds; and walnuts.

It may be beneficial to take a multivitamin-mineral supplement daily. It can supply a baseline of these protective nutrients, with your diet giving an added boost. Your eye doctor may recommend an eye-specific supplement that contains a higher amount of these eye-friendly nutrients. And be sure to have regular eye exams, so that any problems can be detected early.


Eye-Healthy Menu


Total cereal with a handful of almonds

Low-fat dairy, soy or almond milk

Fresh grapefruit and orange sections


Low-fat yogurt with kiwi slices


Oyster stew made with low-fat milk

Coleslaw salad with shredded red and green cabbage, green peppers and pineapple tidbits


Melon slices


Grilled halibut

Roasted sweet potatoes

Fresh baby kale, walnut and beet salad


Peanut butter on whole-grain crackers

Rita P. Smith is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for Martha Jefferson Hospital. She has 40 years of experience in the field of nutrition and disease prevention.


Vital Signs is a community health promotion column sponsored by Martha Jefferson Hospital, University of Virginia Health System, Region Ten and the Thomas Jefferson Health District.

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