The Nutrients That Protect Your Eyes

September 25, 2017

There are a lot of rumours and folk tales that parents tell children – particularly when it comes to eating veggies, and the benefits of certain foods for your health.  Most of us will be familiar with the classic one about carrots helping us to see in the dark – creating fantastic images for children across the world of built-in night vision. And hey, who can blame parents for this little fib? After all, it’s one of the oldest tricks in the parental handbook for getting finicky kids to reluctantly eat the veg on their dinner plates.

Unfortunately, this particular story isn’t exactly true. Eating loads of carrots doesn’t suddenly give you super vision, or allow you to manoeuvre through darkened rooms with ease as we imagined as kids.  The carrot/night vision myth is rooted in a grain of truth, however, as carrots contain beta-carotene, a nutrient which helps keep your eyes healthy. Whatsmore, eating the right kind of vegetables can provide other essential nutrients that help protect our eyes.  So, while this half-truth isn’t totally honest, it does offer a handy lesson about the real benefits for your eyes of eating the right sorts of food, and crucially the right nutrients.  


In a recent study published by Harvard University, it was discovered that certain veggies, including kale and spinach, contain nutrients that may help protect our eyes from a condition caused by blue light.  Blue light is a harmful form of light that damages our eyes, and is one of a range of different forms of light emitted by the sun.  There are also various man-made forms of blue light, which we are exposed to through computer screens, TVs, and mobile devices (such as phones and tablets).


The big increase in these various gadgets over the last few years has given our eyes a lot more blue light to handle – with doctors concerned about digital eye strain and other long-term effects on our eye health.  Fortunately, our bodies have a defence mechanism. Within the human eye, there is a tiny area at the centre of the retina, called the maculaThe macula is an amazing part of our eyes, and is responsible for filtering out the harmful blue light. Over a prolonged period of time however, this exposure to blue light leads to macular degeneration.  This condition is potentially very serious, and can lead to permanent vision loss. In fact, age-related macular degeneration (often referred to as AMD) is the leading form of blindness in the western world.  AMD affects around 1 in 10 people aged 65 or over, and 3 in 10 people 75 or over. This condition usually occurs slowly over time, and is characterised by the appearance of blind spots or shadowy areas in your central vision.


As we now live for longer, this means an increased amount of exposure to blue light, through the sun and our gadget-heavy lifestyle, meaning AMD is a condition to take seriously now and in the future.  In an effort to explore the relationship between natural nutrients and AMD, Harvard University conducted a study of over 100,000 participants – the biggest research project of its kind to ever take place.


Their research followed the participants for 20 years, and showed that the people who ate more of the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin as part of their diets were an amazing 40% less likely to suffer from advanced AMD.  So what are lutein and zeaxanthin? They are naturally-occurring nutrients known as carotenoids (pronounced kuh-rah-teh-noids), which are red and yellow pigments found in lots of different plants and vegetables.


The study shows that the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are common in many regularly-available superfoods, including spinach, kale, cress, peas and squash.  Kale is the best source of lutein and zeaxanthin, as it contains 18.3 milligrams of the beneficial nutrient per 100 grams.  Cress is a good source too, with 12.5mg per 100g, while raw spinach (12.2mg) and cooked spinach (11.3mg) also offer plenty of the useful carotenoids.  Comparing these superfoods to carrots shows just how beneficial the mighty greens are for our eye health.


While our favourite rabbit-friendly orange vegetable does contain both lutein and zeaxanthin – proving many smug parents right the world over – when cooked from raw, carrots contain only 0.7mg per 100g. A tiny amount compared to kale, cress, and spinach.  Making sure that our diets contain plenty of these various superfoods (as well as other greens like lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus) could be hugely beneficial to protecting our eyes from the issues associated with AMD.  Maybe it’s time to retire the old story about carrots, and start telling our kids about the amazing superfoods that protect your eyes from the villainous blue light!


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