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The longer we follow the trail of evidence in support of lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin E, and the others across eye diseases, the more it seems they were made for all things eye health.
The bad news is that poor diet can affect eye health just as much as the more obvious areas, but the good news is that these optically inclined nutrients can do far more than reduce your risk of cataracts.
Before we dive deeper into this powerful connection between diet and cataract risk, it’s important to understand the basics of how the disease works.
Cataracts Explained (in English)
According to a StatPearls entry authored by King Edward Medical University faculty, cataract is “a disease of the eye in which the normally clear lens has opacified which obscures the passage of light.”
The main physiological problem and the cardinal symptom are the same in this case—a hazy splotch of gray that starts in the center of the eye and gradually grows outward.
The painless version of the underlying physiology goes something like this: something causes the tissue that makes up the lens to degrade over time, causing cataracts, the end.
That “something” commonly includes genetic predisposition, poor hydration (of the lens), and others, all leading to the same symptom.
While some of these processes (e.g., genetic factors) can’t be influenced by diet, the research has shown that diet still influences cataracts risk, meaning it’s contributing to (or detracting from) one or more of these processes.
Spotlight on Key Nutrients
The American Optometric Association (AOA) keeps a list of vitamins and nutrients supported by evidence to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts.
Unsurprisingly, the most efficient way to lump all of these into your diet without buying half a dozen supplements is to simply up your intake of plant-based foods and other nutritionally dense options.
Let’s start with that show-stealing pair of antioxidants.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Both lutein and zeaxanthin belong to a class of “food pigments” known as carotenoids, or compounds that give certain foods their colors.
These carotenoids in particular have powerful antioxidant potential, meaning they can offset the damage caused by free radicals, which is often at the source of cataract-related tissue degeneration.
Both compounds stand out even among fellow antioxidants because of their prevalence in the human eye.
The macula of the (healthy) eye is already so rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, in fact, it is slightly yellow.
It’s also important to the role of lutein and zeaxanthin in their native plants, where they shield said plants from being damaged by the sun by absorbing certain kinds of light rays.
Foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin include leafy green vegetables (kale, chard, spinach), peas, squash, broccoli, and more.
For skin as well as eye health, vitamin E is a trusty ally that just won’t quit.
The protective action of vitamin E in the case of cataracts is very similar to lutein and zeaxanthin.
As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin E prevents molecules from becoming “radicalized,” i.e., oxidizing into free radicals, within the lens of the eye.
Pair this nutrient with lutein and zeaxanthin, and you’re mounting a serious defense against lens degeneration.
Vitamin E is found abundantly in vegetable oil, almonds, pumpkins, bell peppers, peanuts, and more.
The anti-cataract potential of zinc is realized in a slightly more roundabout fashion, but it still provides a solid defense against this widespread eye disease.
Put simply, zinc assists with melanin synthesis by helping transport vitamin A from the liver to the eyes.
Melanin is a pigment that helps protect the eyes from harsh light and some other sources of damage.
According to the AOA, several studies have correlated cataracts incidence and other eye issues with zinc deficiency.
Foods rich in zinc include oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, grains, some dairy products, and more.
Omega Fatty Acids
As with so many other tissues in the body, omega-3 acids are instrumental to eye health from an early age.
Omega-3s help the eye develop properly, meaning it’s essential to have a steady intake of this polyunsaturated fatty acid from a very young age on.
The problem is that most Americans are deficient in omega-3, which is found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, and some oils, while consuming far too much omega-6, which is found in peanut butter, eggs, safflower oil, and other commonly consumed foods.
Balancing out this ratio will help not only the eye, but many other aspects of overall health.
The Tricky Part: Vitamin C
This study from New Zealand’s University of Auckland makes some interesting points regarding vitamin C and cataracts risk.
While vitamin C is often touted as a highly beneficial staple of the healthy diet, which it is, this study found that the “use of a high-dose formulation of Vitamin C (in research)…supplements had a statistically significant increased risk of age-related cataract.”
The authors then go on to explain that high doses of vitamin C have been established in previous studies to actually have pro-oxidative effects.
This isn’t to say, of course, that you should skip on vitamin C (or vitamin E, which was also cited by the authors as having this reverse effect), but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing—even in nutrition.
Yet again, we find ourselves echoing the same theme we’ve followed in so many other investigations: increasing your consumption of plant-based foods and nutritionally dense protein sources will seriously reduce the risk of a litany of problems, cataracts included.
This effort is best paired with a steady campaign against processed foods, excessive amounts of red meat, sugary drinks/snacks, and so on.
Considering the potential of certain vitamins to actually worsen cataracts, it is also important to keep a high variety of said plant-based foods.
It may seem sloppy or oversimplified, but dieting by color is actually a highly effective way to go about this; get some dark green, orange/red/yellow (not from being deep fried!), and blue in every day.