What’s good for your eyes is good for the rest of you. “Eat a variety and abundance of colorful plant foods,” advises Julie Mares, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
But what if you had to single out one group of foods? What are the best foods for eye health? “At the top of my list are dark leafy greens,” says Mares. That means spinach, kale, collards, and Swiss chard. Peas, broccoli, and other green vegetables may also help.
That’s because dark leafy greens are rich in lutein and its cousin, zeaxanthin.
A number of studies have found a lower risk of cataracts and advanced macular degeneration in people who consume more lutein and zeaxanthin.
“They’re the predominant carotenoids in both the lens and the retina, and specifically in the cone-rich area of the macula,” says Mares. “That’s the part of the retina that’s used to see fine detail, like reading a pill bottle or newspaper.”
Age-related macular degeneration is the major cause of blindness in older people. And the lens is where cataracts form.
“By age 75, half of us will either have a visually significant cataract or have already had one extracted,” says Mares. “It’s the number-one cause of poor vision among people aged 65 to 74.”
“There’s strong, compelling evidence for a potential protective effect of these carotenoids,” notes Mares. But it’s not a done deal. Something else in leafy greens could explain why they’re among the best foods for eye health. “They’re nutritional powerhouses,” explains Mares. “They’ve got gobs of antioxidants.”
Another possibility: “Lutein may be a marker for people who eat healthy plant-rich diets,” she suggests. And something else about those diets—or the people who eat them—may explain their lower risk of eye disease.
Lutein rich vegetables
If you’re looking for the best foods for eye health, start with these lutein-rich vegetables.
Per 1/2 cup cooked vegetable
- Kale 11.9 mg
- Spinach 10.2 mg
- Swiss chard 9.6 mg
- Collard greens 7.3 mg
- Spinach (1 cup raw) 3.7 mg
- Broccoli 1.2 mg
- Brussels sprouts 1.0 mg
- Zucchini 1.o mg
- Asparagus 0.7 mg
- Corn 0.6 mg
- Nectarine (1) 0.2 mg
- Orange (1) 0.2 mg
Second on Mares’s list of possible eye protectors: “I would add oily fish.” That means foods like salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
“There is a strong, consistent body of evidence that people who eat fish of this type are less likely to have macular degeneration,” she notes. “People are jumping to the conclusion that it’s their omega-3s that matter, but it may also be other things, like their vitamin D or selenium or both.”
The worst foods for eye health
What might boost your risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, other than smoking and excess sunlight?
“Refined sugars and starches,” offers Mares. “The most compelling reason is that they’re strongly associated with poor diets,” she explains. In other words, their empty calories replace nutrient-rich foods.
For example, “If you had one 500-calorie Dunkin’ Donuts blueberry muffin a day in place of nutrient-dense foods, the muffin would reduce your lutein and zeaxanthin every day to 75 percent of what it would be otherwise.” You’d also get less of the vitamins and minerals that are in the best foods for eye health.
“It’s not that refined sugars or white bread are bad,” adds Mares. “It’s that they go along with a reduced intake of many nutrients. So in my mind, they’re anti-vitamins.”
And if you ate the 500-calorie muffin— or bagel or scone or cupcake or whatever —in addition to your ordinary diet, you’d gain weight. “Obesity leads to the inflammatory and oxidative stress that also increases your risk of eye disease,” says Mares. “That’s absolutely a problem.”
Sources: Arch. Ophthalmol.126: 354, 2008. Br. J. Nutr. 107: 350, 2012. Arch. Ophthalmol. 126: 1274, 2008.