“Lutein and its twin, zeaxanthin, are the only carotenoids that are found in the lens and in the macula, which is the central part of the retina and therefore most vulnerable to light damage,” says Tufts University’s Elizabeth Johnson.
“These two carotenoids absorb harmful visible light from the sun and protect the lens, retina, and other eye tissues.”
So should you take a lutein supplement to help preserve your vision? Some key evidence:
In studies that track the eating habits of thousands of men and women, people with higher levels of lutein plus zeaxanthin in their diets have a lower risk of cataracts.
But in the only good study that tested supplements, people with macular degeneration who were given lutein and zeaxanthin every day for five years had no lower risk of cataracts. The amounts were 10 milligrams of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin.
But there was one exception in this study. Those who were not getting much lutein and zeaxanthin from their diets lowered their risk of cataracts by 30 percent if they took the supplements.
“Having sufficient lutein and zeaxanthin in the eye has long been suspected to enhance vision,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Julie Mares.
“Several studies suggest that lutein supplements improve the ability to detect contrasts between colors or intensities, which can be especially difficult in dim lighting.”
Supplements or food?
But Mares stops short of recommending that people take lutein supplements. “Getting lutein and zeaxanthin from a plant-rich diet with lots of green leafy vegetables is one of the best ways to preserve your eye health,”she notes. “What’s protective is probably those carotenoids in combination with other components of the foods, so you’re likely better off getting them from food, not pills.”
Since lutein and zeaxanthin are fat-soluble, make sure your meal includes some vegetable oil or a food with fat, adds Elizabeth Johnson.
Here are some of the best food sources of lutein:
Sources: Arch. Ophthalmol. 126: 102, 2008; JAMA Ophthalmol. 131: 843, 2013; 3 Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 55: 8583, 2014.
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