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  • Diet and Nutrition

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    Reviewed By Ninel Z Gregori, MD
    Edited By David Turbert
    Published Apr. 03, 2024

    No, you’re not getting any younger. But eating the right foods may help protect your vision and keep you healthy as you age.

    Foods rich in vitamins C and E, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to lower risks of age-related macular degeneration (AMD)cataract and other eye conditions later in life. It's also possible that diet plays a role in glaucoma, though it's not yet clear how.

    What does this nutrient-rich diet look like? Let’s break it down:

    • Vitamin C. Foods with lots vitamin c are oranges, grapefruit, kiwifruit, strawberries, tomatoes, red and green peppers, and broccoli.
    • Vitamin E. Healthy sources of vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds, olive oil, and avocadoes.
    • Zinc. Legumes (beans and lentils), seeds, meat/seafood, dairy, and eggs are all good sources of zinc.
    • Lutein and zeaxanthin. Both of these nutrients are found naturally in the retina—the light sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. This is why boosting your diet with lutein and zexanthin is a win for your eye health. Lutein and zexanthin—often found together in many foods—are part of the “carotenoid” family of plant pigments. Carotenoids give color to many vegetables and fruits. You can find lutein and zexanthin in leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, and swiss chard. Broccoli, asparagus, and colorful fruits like raspberries, papaya, peaches, and mangoes are also chock-full of eye-healthy carotenoids.

    Cataract prevention in the produce aisle

    Did you know that regularly enjoying a piece of fruit and a side of vegetables can help prevent vision loss from cataracts? Studies show that a diet rich in foods with antioxidants may reduce your risk of developing cataracts.

    But what are antioxidants?

    Put simply, antioxidants are foods that keep us healthy by delaying or slowing down oxidation, which causes aging or cell death. Oxidation may lead to cataracts by causing changes to fats and proteins in the eye’s lens, making the lens cloudy.

    What foods are antioxidants?

    Foods rich in vitamins A, C and E, carotenoids, lutein and zexanthin, and selenium (pasta, bread and grains) all help protect our cells from damage.

    While you can get supplements in pill form at the drug store, antioxidants are most beneficial when consumed organically from fruits and vegetables and other whole foods. Studies show that antioxidant supplements do not help prevent cataracts. Supplements may even be harmful. For example, high-dose beta-carotene supplements have been shown to increase risk of lung cancer in smokers and former smokers. High-dose vitamin E supplements increase risk of hemorrhagic stroke (stroke caused by bleeding in the brain) and prostate cancer. So load up on fresh veggies and delicious fruits—not on high-dose supplements—knowing you are doing your eyes and your health a favor.

    Benefits of the Mediterranean diet for eye health

    The Mediterranean diet is named after the eating habits of those living near the Mediterranean Sea. Studies show the plant- and seafood-based diet may help reduce your risk of heart disease and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

    The Mediterranean diet includes:

    • green leafy vegetables and colorful fruits
    • tree nuts like almonds, cashews and walnuts
    • seafood as your primary meat source 
    • healthy fats. Choose olive oil over butter
    • whole grain bread, cereal, and pasta
    • lots of herbs and spices added to your food to lower your salt intake
    • moderate amount of dairy (yogurt and cheese) and eggs

    Those from the region also enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner, which has its own health benefits (in moderation). So there is some truth to a toast of Salute (to your health)!

    Low-glycemic index diets and eye health

    People who have or at risk for diabetes or age-related macular degeneration (AMD) may benefit by following a low-glycemic index (low-GI) diet. Ask your doctor for advice before trying a new diet, because not all trendy diets are actually good for your health.

    With diabetes, blood sugar levels can get too high, which causes serious health problems and can lead to vision loss. Some foods cause rapid spikes in blood sugar (high-GI) and others raise blood sugar more moderately (low-GI). You can avoid quick blood sugar spikes with low-GI food swaps:

    • Oatmeal or muesli over sweetened breakfast cereal
    • Brown rice over white rice
    • Whole-grain bread over white bread
    • Durum wheat pasta or sweet potato over a baked potato
    • Nuts over potato chips

    Ask your doctor about the latest research on omega fatty acids and dry eye

    Dry eye develops when the eyes do not produce enough tears to keep them lubricated and comfortable. Artificial tears and medication are very helpful in managing the symptoms of dry eye.

    You might have heard that a diet rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids also provides relief, but there's not strong scientific evidence to support this claim. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish (like salmon, trout and sardines). Nuts and oils like walnuts and sunflower oil are natural sources of omega-6 fatty acids. Both are available as oral supplements (pills or tablets).

    Ask your doctor for advice before trying any new dietary supplements.

    Fish may help lower the risk of macular degeneration

    Studies found that women who ate fish high in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week were less likely to get age-related macular degeneration.

    Fish is also good for your heart. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults eat fish at least twice a week. Some fish contain high mercury levels and should be eaten sparingly or avoided completely during pregnancy. Talk to your doctor about what fish and how much is healthy to eat if you are pregnant or become pregnant.

    Calcium and age-related macular degeneration

    Earlier studies suggested that calcium lowered the risk of developing AMD but newer research is uncertain. Emily Chew, MD, a researcher at the National Eye Institute, explains why and clarifies the role of calcium in your eye and overall health

    AREDS2 formula for age-related macular degeneration

    People with certain forms of AMD may be able to slow the progression of the disease to advanced form by taking the AREDS2 supplements. This formula—developed from the Age-Related Eye Diseases Study (AREDS)—includes:

    • Vitamin C (500 mg)
    • Vitamin E (400 IU)
    • Lutein (10 mg)
    • Zeaxanthin (2 mg)
    • Zinc oxide (80 mg) and
    • Copper oxide (2 mg)

    AREDS2 study also looked at whether adding omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, specifically DHA and EPA, to the above ingredients further lowers the risk of AMD progression and found no additional benefit. Moreover, the AREDS studies found no prevention or slowing down of cataract progression by these supplements.

    Before stocking up on these supplements, be sure to talk with your ophthalmologist to learn if they are recommended for you. Some people should not take large doses of antioxidants or zinc for medical reasons.

    As you think about ways to improve your eye health, remember: vitamins and nutritional supplements are not a cure for eye disease, nor will they give you back vision that you may have already lost. But good nutrition at all ages is vital for your entire body, and plays an important role in maintaining healthy eyes. Talk with your ophthalmologist about any concerns you have about your eye health.