Yes, it can happen, even in the developed world. Many were in disbelief recently as they read the story of a 17-year-old boy who became legally blind from a poor diet. It got people asking, “Is this true?”
Yes, says Andrew G. Lee, MD, a neuro-ophthalmologist at the Blanton Eye Institute, Houston Methodist Hospital.
“Dietary deficiencies are rare in the developed world because of easy nutritious food access and vitamin fortification in our foods,” Dr. Lee said. “But it can occur in patients who are medically malnourished (e.g., chronic alcoholism), are strict vegetarians, have had gastrointestinal surgery (e.g., bariatric procedures) or have an eating disorder (e.g., anorexia nervosa).”
The teenager’s parents first took him to the doctor because he complained of being tired all the time. He was a “fussy eater,” but tests showed he had a normal body weight and no visible signs of malnutrition. He was prescribed vitamin B12 injections because blood tests revealed he had anemia and low levels of vitamin B12.
Within a year, he suffered hearing loss and impaired vision. Sadly, he lost sight before the true cause of his complaint was revealed. He suffered retinal starvation due to years of eating only chips, French fries, white bread and processed pork. Physicians concluded that his “fussy diet” resulted in B12 deficiency, low levels of vitamin D, copper and selenium, high levels of zinc, reduced bone density, and severe optic neuropathy, which stole his sight.
“This case shows that you can be blinded not only by what you eat (i.e., toxic optic neuropathy from drinking “moonshine” (methanol) to eating products tainted by lead, mercury or arsenic) but also by what you don’t eat,” Dr. Lee said.
Physicians have long known that good nutrition benefits your entire body, including your eyes: Be sure to include these five things in your diet to promote healthy vision:
- Leafy green vegetables. Kale and spinach are high in lutein and zeaxanthin. Other vegetables with significant amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin include romaine lettuce, collards, turnip greens, broccoli and peas.
- Citrus fruits. Oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and lemons are high in vitamin C, an antioxidant critical to eye health. Lots of other foods offer vitamin C, including peaches, red peppers, tomatoes and strawberries.
- Beans. All kinds of beans including black-eyed peas, kidney beans and lima beans, contain zinc, an essential trace mineral that is found in high concentration in the eyes. Other foods high in zinc include oysters, lean red meat, poultry and fortified cereals.
- Cold-water fish. Research shows that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acid from cold-water fish may help reduce the risk of developing eye disease later in life. These fish include salmon, tuna, sardines and halibut.
- Orange-colored vegetables and fruits. Carrots are high in beta-carotene, a nutrient that helps with night vision, as are other orange-colored fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, apricots and cantaloupe.