The possibility of failing vision is one of the most frightening aspects of growing older and yet few of us consider the long-term effects our diet may be having on our eyes.
Whilst eating carrots won’t actually allow you to see in the dark, behind this old wives’ tale lies an element of truth; eating healthily reduces the risk of sight loss as we age. Many of the most common eye conditions - such as cataract, age-related macular degeneration, dry eye, diabetic retinopathy and even inflammatory eye disease - are all influenced by diet; both what’s in there and what’s missing.
Not what it used to be ... Over the last few decades, the quality of our food has changed dramatically. Intensive farming methods have increased productivity at the expense of quality to feed an ever-growing population affordably. E, essential micronutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids and fibre are often removed whilst sugar, salt and a multitude of chemicals are added to prolong shelf life and titillate our taste buds. The result? Hyper-palatable (a.k.a. moreish) food which is calorie dense but nutritionally deficient.
Why is it so important to watch what we eat? The health of our eyesight provides a window into our general wellbeing and is adversely affected by conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, autoimmune disorders and certain cancers. All of which become more prevalent with age and benefit from avoidance of highly processed foods in favour of a minimally processed, nutrient-rich diet.
Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the commonest cause of blindness in the Western World, responsible for severe visual impairment or blindness in a quarter of a million adults over 50 in the UK. In AMD, there is damage to the macula (central area) of the layer of nerves at the back of the eye (retina). The influence of diet on its development is well established.
My colleague Ms Rupal Morjaria, Consultant Retinal Specialist, treats patients with AMD, diabetic retinopathy and cataract on a daily basis. She says: "Preventing the devastating impact of sight loss on the quality of life of my patients is what motivates me in my work. I advise my AMD patients to stop smoking and eat an antioxidant rich diet, supplemented with a capsule developed for macular health* to reduce the risk of visual loss.”
Whilst there are now procedures which Ms Morjaria and retinal specialists like her perform in cases of more advanced disease, prevention is the best medicine. So here are my top tips on how to keep your peepers (and the rest of you) in tip top condition:
Eat your veg. Packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals, try to eat as much as you can. Colour is a good indicator of nutritional value; the darker the colour, the better – blackberries, blueberries and dark leafy greens such as rocket and spinach are good examples.
Ditch the junk: Highly processed foods are more likely to have a long shelf life, lots of ingredients (many of which you can’t identify – think E numbers), hide sugar under various pseudonyms and are often packaged in glorious technicolour to attract attention. Take a stroll down the kids' cereal aisle and you’ll see what I mean.
Cook. Prepare food from scratch using fresh ingredients. Frozen is also acceptable as most nutrients are preserved effectively. Pressure cooking, microwaving and steaming are great ways to avoid the leaching out of water-soluble nutrients whilst maintaining taste and texture.
Eat seasonally. Locally sourced produce eaten in season has been harvested when ripe and delicious and has a low carbon footprint. Better for your body and the planet.
Buy organic– wherever you can afford to. Vegetables, meat and dairy produced without pesticides, herbicides or antibiotics are best for micronutrient intake and kinder to your gut microbiome – another important factor for health.
Clever supplementation: Bioavailability (ease of absorption) of nutrients in food tends to be higher than that of supplements, so I would advocate a healthy, varied diet over just taking pills and hoping for the best, although there are several notable exceptions, all of which are available over the counter, without prescription.
Vitamin D3 – is important for bone maintenance, mental health and reduction in risk of depression and certain cancers. One in six adults in the UK is vitamin D deficient and NHS England advocates supplementation between October and March.
Omega 3 – the change in the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 in recent years, promotes low-grade inflammation in our bodies which underlies many chronic diseases. Sprinkling flaxseed onto your salads or overnight oats or taking an algae-derived supplement are alternatives if you don’t like oily fish or taking fish liver oil.
*Macular supplements contain vital pigments, lutein, zeaxanthin and mesozeaxanthin are proven to help reduce the risk of blindness in macular degeneration.
Optometrists are trained to detect eye diseases at an early stage before any symptoms develop, so it is essential to see yours every one to two years, even if you don’t wear glasses. If you would like to make an enquiry or an appointment with Dr Julia Sen please contact 07548 964367 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.