Diminished eye health and vision problems may seem inevitable as we age. But studies show that certain foods can reduce free radical damage, lower inflammation, and protect the eyes from cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other serious vision issues. And the good news? Eating for eye health is easy—and delicious!
Is rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, powerful antioxidants that are selectively concentrated in the macula, the part of the retina that’s the region of sharpest vision. Both are thought to protect against macular degeneration—the leading cause of blindness—by quenching free radicals, stabilizing cell membranes, and absorbing blue light emitted by electronics. In one study, researchers found that a higher intake of lutein and zeaxanthin was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of macular degeneration. Other good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin include spinach, turnip greens, chard, collards, and peppers.
Try this: Toss kale leaves with olive oil and coarse salt, and roast until crispy; sauté finely chopped kale with onion, minced carrots, chickpeas, and curry powder; make a spicy pesto with kale, basil, cashews, and Sriracha.
2. Sunflower Seeds
Are loaded with vitamin E, which protects the eyes from the effects of inflammation. In one study of 39,876 women, higher dietary intakes of vitamin E, in combination with lutein and zeaxanthin, significantly decreased the risk of cataracts. A meta-analysis of studies on age-related cataracts and vitamin E suggested that both dietary and supplemental vitamin E were associated with reduced risk of cataracts. Almonds, wheat germ, hazelnuts, eggs, and tomato juice are also high in vitamin E.
Try this: Blend sunflower seeds in a food processor with pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, and a bit of honey for a nut butter alternative; purée sunflower seeds with brown rice, red peppers, garlic, mushrooms, and spices for a soy-free vegan burger; toss sunflower seeds with shredded Brussels sprouts, red onions, dried cranberries, and a light dressing for a simple side dish.
Is high in vitamin C, an antioxidant that fights free radical damage in the eyes, and may protect against cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s natural lens. In one study, people with the highest levels of vitamin C had a 64 percent reduced risk of cataracts. Strawberries, broccoli, yellow peppers, peaches, kiwi, and grapefruit juice are also high in vitamin C.
Try this: Toss cubes of papaya with cubed avocado, chunks of pineapple, minced red onion, and chopped cilantro; cook black japonica rice with coconut milk and coconut sugar, then cool and toss with diced papaya and lime zest; cut ripe papaya into wedges, toss with chili powder, and serve with wedges of lime.
4. Brazil Nuts
Are high in zinc, which is important for the structure and function of cell membranes and helps protect the retina. In the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), a multicenter study sponsored by the National Eye Institute, a combination of zinc and antioxidant vitamins (including lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene) reduced the risk of aged-related macular degeneration by 25 percent. Brazil nuts are also rich in selenium, which may help offset exposure to mercury from fish, a risk factor for cataracts. Foods highest in zinc include oysters, crab, and beef. Vegetarian sources include soybeans, chickpeas, and pumpkin seeds. Because they’re so high in selenium, you can overdo Brazil nuts, so go easy on them.
Try this: Mix chopped Brazil nuts with broccolini, garlic, and red pepper flakes, and roast till tender; add chopped Brazil nuts, dried cherries, and vanilla bean powder to cooked oatmeal; toss arugula, cooked beets, goat cheese, and chopped Brazil nuts into an easy salad.
5. Chia Seeds
Are high in omega-3s, which help protect the eyes from a variety of factors that can lead to retinal diseases, including oxidative stress, inflammation, light exposure, and aging. Chia seeds contain omega-3 fats in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body must convert to EPA and DHA. The conversion rate is thought to be low, but some studies show vegetarians and vegans have higher levels of EPA and DHA than would be expected. The richest sources of EPA and DHA include salmon, trout, mackerel, calamari, and sardines. Vegetarian sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and fortified eggs.
Try this: Mix 1/4 cup chia seeds with 1 cup almond milk, sweetened with honey or agave, then top with goji berries and pistachios; mix 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with 1 cup puréed raspberries, and let stand until thickened for an easy raw jam; mix chia seeds, hemp seeds, chopped walnuts, almond butter, and quick oats into a dough, then roll into balls for quick energy bites.
Try our Crunchy Sunflower-Kale Chips recipe.