The Visionary Diet

      About 30 million Americans, or one in every four, suffer from one of the two leading causes of blindness - age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Nearly three-fourths of Americans aged 55 and older began noticing changes in vision between the ages of 40 and 45-years. A new study finds there is much you can do diet-wise to avoid loss of vision and Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness gave us the scoop.

      A study from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology reports that daily consumption of at two substances in certain vegetables, lutein and zeaxanthin, as well as vitamins C, E, beta carotene, and zinc significantly reduced progression of age-related macular degeneration. Previous studies have found up to a 30% reduction in risk, so this new study confirms a body of evidence that diet and supplements can make a big difference on how well you see down the road.

      Where can we get these nutrients?
      It is important to note that our bodies can't make these substances. They have to come from the diet. Our eyes can't protect themselves without them, so we need to take this information very seriously. Most of these nutrients can be consumed in dark green leafy and richly colored orange vegetables. For example, beta carotene, which can be converted to vitamin A in the body and is important for seeing in dim light, is rich in carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach. Spinach also is one of the best sources of lutein and zeaxanthin. So, while most Americans think carrots are the best food for eye health, it is spinach and other dark green leafies that are by far the better choice.
      Vitamin C protects the eyes from damage from UV light exposure. It's found in citrus fruits, red bell peppers, kiwi, and watermelon.
      Vitamin E is found in nuts and wheat germ and the best sources of zinc include whole grains and legumes, like black beans, kidney beans, and lentils.

      How much of these do we need?
      You need at least 2 servings a day of those dark green leafies and at least one of the orange vegetables for the lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta carotene. Two or more vitamin C-rich foods or 500 milligrams of vitamin C as a supplement, and lots of whole grains everyday. The study I mentioned used a supplement that contained 10 milligrams of lutein and 2 milligrams of zeaxanthin. Most Americans average only 1 to 2 milligrams of lutein a day, so if you can't reach your daily quota of lutein-rich vegetables, then consider taking a supplement.

      What else is good for the eyes?
      The omega-3 fats, especially those found in seafood, also show promise in lowering the risk for future macular degeneration and cataracts. Preliminary research suggests at least 500 milligrams of these two omega-3s might help lower the risk for future vision loss. In addition, the omega-3s, DHA and EPA, might help with dry eyes.

      What is dry eyes?
      Itching, burning, irritation, redness and excessive tearing are all symptoms of one of the most common eye problems dry eye syndrome. More than 10 million Americans suffer from dry eyes. Anyone can develop the problem, but women during and following menopause are at a heightened risk of developing this condition.

      What causes dry eyes?
      It is usually caused by a problem with the quality of the oily tear film that lubricates the eyes and helps prevent evaporation of the eye's natural moisture. However, one of the most common reasons for the eyes to be dry is aging. The human body produces 60 percent less oil at age 65 then at age 18. And studies have found that this effect is more pronounced in women, who tend to have drier skin than men. Without as much oil to seal the watery layer, the tear film evaporates much faster, leaving dry areas on the cornea.
      Beyond the eye drops that lubricate the eyes and provide synthetic "tears," fish oils might be helpful in preventing or treating this problem. For example, in a Harvard study, women who consumed the most omega-3 fats from fish had a 17 percent lower risk of suffering from dry eyes when compared to women who consumed little or no seafood.
      And, it's also important to note that not all omega-3 fats are equal. The omega-3 fat in plants, such as flax and walnuts, may help lower heart disease risk, but does not appear to help with dry eyes. It is the two omega-3s in fish, called DHA and EPA, that are most helpful.

      Anything else?
      To protect against cataracts and macular degeneration, wear sunglasses that filter out both UVA and UVB light.