Nutrition and Vision

Forget that tired old question about who’s hotter, Ginger or Mary Ann.

We’ve got a tougher one: Who has better eyesight, Popeye or Bugs Bunny? Before you hop in with an answer, let’s consider the qualities of these two animation icons.

In this corner, weighing 150 pounds (and that’s just his forearms), is everybody’s favorite sailorman. Look at him nuzzle his anorexic extra-virgin girlfriend and inhale his spinach right from the can.

In that corner, weighing oh, probably 20 pounds (and that’s just his ears), is Elmer Fudd’s favorite nemesis. Look at him nonchalantly lean on the ropes while he chomps on a fresh carrot.

So who’s it going to be? The perpetually squinting Bluto-battler or the Cwazy Wabbit? Amazingly, the winner by a knockout is Popeye!
 

 
Spinach before carrots? How can that be? Didn’t our moms tell us to eat our carrots because they’re good for our eyes?

Yes they did. But they also told us that if we keep crossing our eyes, one day they’re going to get stuck that way. We love our moms, but maybe they’re not the most reliable source of information when it comes to eyes.

Nope, the consensus is in from nutrition and vision experts: the nutrients in spinach are actually better for the health of your eyes than the ones in carrots.

Let’s look, with both eyes open, at some facts surrounding nutrition and vision.

These facts come courtesy of the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and its follow-up, AREDS-2, both conducted by the National Eye Institute (NEI), which is part of the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Keep track of those acronyms. There will be a test later. Not.

Results from AREDS, begun in 1992, were published in 2001. Results from AREDS2, begun in 2006, were published this year. Each study examined the two most common forms of eye disease, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts.

What are those, exactly? Let’s start with macular degeneration.

The macula is part of the eye’s retina, which serves a similar function to the film in a camera. We should probably explain that before there were digital cameras there was this thing called film. Google it.
 

 
Just like a camera lens, the eye’s lens receives an image. The image is transmitted to the retina, like the way an image taken by a camera lens used to be transmitted to the film in the camera.

The macula is in the center of the retina. When light comes to a point of focus on the center of the macula, you can see objects and colors sharply.

The macula is yellow, which enables it to absorb harmful blue and ultraviolet light that enters the eye, blocking this harmful light like a pair of sunglasses.

AMD comes two ways: dry and wet. Dry is when the tissue of the macula deteriorates. Wet is worse – that’s when the blood vessels behind the retina leak blood and other fluid into the macula.

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. of people over 60, according to research conducted under the auspices of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Some estimates put the number of affected people as high as 15 million. However, many of those people are only mildly affected or won’t experience a decline in vision at all. But about 2 million Americans with AMD are severely affected, to the point of acute vision loss.

Check out this picture, which you can look at to test to see if you have any form of macular degeneration:
 

 
Click here for the full grid and explanation
 
Now let’s examine cataracts.

Cataracts form when the eye’s lens becomes cloudy, leading to blurred vision and vision loss. Cataracts happen because the lens of the eye is made up mostly of water and protein. As we age, the protein begins to clump together, creating the cloudy effect on the lens.

Most cataracts are related to aging and are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract-removal surgery, according to statistics compiled by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). In addition, almost 22 million Americans have cataracts in at least one eye, and the number is expected to increase to 30 million by 2020.

OK, so now that we know what AMD and cataracts are, let’s look at which nutrients AREDS and AREDS2 found helpful in addressing these eye diseases.

The first study, AREDS, examined whether taking vitamins E and C, zinc, and beta-carotene – which makes carrots orange – reduced the onset of these diseases.

For AREDS2, the NEI scientists added omega-3 fatty acids and the antioxidants lutein (pronounced LOO-teen) and zeaxanthin (zee-ah-ZAN-thin) – both of which are abundant in spinach, kale, and other leafy green vegetables. Both of these antioxidants are also present in the macula.

In addition to being antioxidants – which are molecules that help maintain the health of cells – lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids. Carotenoids are what give plant foods their colors.

Lutein is especially important because it gives the macula its yellow pigment. When this pigment degenerates – causes of this degeneration include aging, a poor diet, smoking, being a female, and having blue eyes – the macula degenerates, too, because the protection the pigment supplies gets lost. It’s like a dark, polarized sunglass lens getting replaced by a clear lens on a bright, sunny day.

Now let’s go back to the studies and their findings.

Contrary to the preliminary results of AREDS, the AREDS2 results show that taking vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, zinc, and the omega-3s had no effect on decreasing the onset or reducing the effects of either disease.

However, there were significant reductions in AMD from lutein and zeaxanthin.

Moreover, when beta-carotene was removed from the study, the scientists found that the AMD-reducing effects provided by lutein and zeaxanthin doubled.

Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Bugs.

AREDS2 also found that neither lutein nor zeaxanthin prevented cataracts from forming. But that’s not to say that there are not foods that help prevent cataracts. A 1993-2009 study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford in England found that vegetarians and vegans were less likely than meat eaters to develop cataracts – vegetarians 30 percent less likely, vegans 40 percent– and that the more meat people ate, the greater the likelihood they would develop cataracts.

But let’s say you’re a young whippersnapper who hates carrots and spinach. You are years away from getting cataracts, and you spend more time thinking about getting MDMA than AMD.

"It's Good for You... you should probably eat it"

We can hear you now:

“Dude. Why should I care about this? My vision’s 20/20. I’m sticking with the four major non-food groups – doughnuts, candy bars, 64-ounce sodas, and cigarettes!”

Go ahead, knock yourself out. But remember Dud, uh, Dude, what you eat now affects your eyes today and in the future.

Keep eating junk food and smoking cigarettes, and you could be setting yourself up for type 2 diabetes. Almost 400 million people around the world have diabetes, and 25 million of them are Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Close to half of all American diabetics have some form of diabetic retinopathy, which, after macular degeneration, is the second leading cause of blindness of people in the U.S. Also, people with diabetes get cataracts earlier, and diabetics are 60 percent likelier to get cataracts than non-diabetics, the ADA states.

Type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult-onset diabetes, but the number of children and adolescents who have this type of diabetes has greatly increased during the past 20 years. Consequently, the name of the disease has changed to reflect this appalling reality.

But if you eat a diet rich in – you know what’s coming – fruits and vegetables, that will not only improve your chances of maintaining good vision but improve your overall health, too.

And that’s what’s up, doc.

Eye Diagram Via: Wiki Media Commons

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7 Responses

  1. Sid says:

    Great article, quick follow up question, I know you mentioned that beta-carotene has little affect in prevent the onset of eye diseases, but it does have some benefits for eye heath, no?

  2. Thanks for your comment and question, Sid! Regarding your question about beta-carotene and eye health, beta-carotene is converted by the body to vitamin A, which helps maintain the health of cells, including the cells and tissues in the eye’s crystalline lens. For people who have a vitamin A deficiency, which is rare in Americans, eating a small carrot daily will supply more than enough of the beta-carotene the body needs. However, two other antioxidants (an antioxidant helps keep the body’s cells healthy), lutein and zeaxanthin, present in green, leafy vegetables, were found to be much more effective than beta-carotene in maintaining eye health, according to the results of the second Age-Related Macular Degeneration Study (AREDS2). Moreover, AREDS2 found that 1) taking beta-carotene supplements (15 mg, the equivalent of 25,000 units of vitamin A) did not help slow the onset of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), and that 2) taking it in conjunction with lutein and zeaxanthin actually inhibited the effectiveness of those two carotenoids (antioxidants that provide plants’ pigments) in slowing the onset of AMD. Moreover, taking beta-carotene supplements also is linked with lung cancer in cigarette smokers and ex-smokers. For more information, check out the results of AREDS2 here: http://www.nei.nih.gov/areds2/

  3. Correction: the acronym in AREDS and AREDS2 stands for Age-Related Eye Disease Study, not Age-Related Macular Degeneration Study.

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