There are many connections between our eyes and our appetite. The observation that "you eat first with your eyes" refers to the initial appeal created by the visual presentation of a dish. Another maxim "your eyes are bigger than your stomach" warns against piling up portions you'll never be able to finish. Today, nutrition researchers are gazing into our eyes for another reason. They want to illuminate the link between what we eat and the long term health of our eyes and their diet discoveries include more than nibbling carrots to see better in the dark. (F.Y.-Eye: The body converts the beta-carotene in carrots to Vitamin A, which is necessary for night vision.)
Carrots still rank high on the eye-sight- saving menu but other heroes, perhaps even more important, are emerging from the vegetable kingdom. Scientists have set their sights on green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard greens and turnip greens because they contain two natural carotenoid plant pigments called lutein and zeaxanthin. They are both potent antioxidants which are thought to protect the eyes against damaging free radicals that may cause cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
In one study, published in the Archives of Ophthalmology, a team at Harvard Medical School, found that women who consumed higher levels of lutein and zeanxanthin (6.7 milligrams per day) were 18% less likely to develop cataracts than those who consumed lower levels of the antioxidants (2.1 milligrams per day). Another new study, reported by University of Sydney scientists in the journal Ophthalmology, found similar results linking higher lutein and zeaxanthin consumption to lower risk for AMD. The Australian study also found that the mineral zinc was associated with a lower risk of AMD. Other powerful antioxidant nutrients long associated with maintaining overall eye health are vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene.
The two leading causes of visual loss and blindness are cataracts and AMD, affecting more than 22 million Americans. So just as with other areas of disease prevention, learning more about how diet can play a role in protecting eye health is an important lesson. Happily, many of the foods rich in nutrients good for our eyes are delicious additions to any meal and are beautiful to look at too.
Focus on Foods for a "20/20 Diet" –
Lutein/Zeaxanthin: kale, collard greens, spinach, turnip greens, broccoli, avocado, zucchini, peas, corn, Brussels sprouts, tangerines, dark leafy salad greens.
Beta-carotene: carrots, mangos, sweet potato, greens, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, kale, apricots.
Vitamin C: papaya, citrus fruit, strawberries, tomato, mango, green peppers, berries.
Vitamin E: almonds, wheat germ, whole grain breads, avocado, greens.
Zinc: oysters, lobster, beef, poultry, pork, lentils, whole grain bread.
Source: USDA nutrient database.