Mom was right – carrots are good for your eyes. But that’s not all. Researchers have linked specific nutrients in a variety of foods to a reduced risk of eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration.
Let’s look at the best sources of eye-friendly nutrients, explain why they’re important for eye health, and offer few alternative food choices to give you plenty of options.
Beef Liver – Best Source of Vitamin A & Zinc
Probably not the first food that comes to mind when you think about eye health! But beef liver provides a whopping 713% of your daily value per serving. Vitamin A helps to form an effective barrier to bacteria and viruses, reducing the risk of eye infections. It’s also essential for maintaining photoreceptors. These are special cells in the eye's retina that convert light into signals sent to the brain. Supplementing with this vitamin can lower the risk of night blindness, a condition making it difficult to see clearly in dim light.
A serving of beef liver also contains a lot of zinc, a mineral that helps your body absorb vitamin A. Red meat and dairy are also a good source of zinc, but if you’re limiting these food groups, zinc is also found in shellfish, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
If beef liver isn’t quite to your liking, here are some other foods that provide a good dose of Vitamin A. Try seafood such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, and trout; cheeses like goat, limburger and cheddar; and butter.
Sweet Potatoes – Best Source of Provitamin A
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan and want a source of Vitamin A without consuming animal products, try sweet potatoes. Although sweet potatoes do not have Vitamin A naturally, our bodies can produce Vitamin A from the carotenoids found in these vegetables. These carotenoids are antioxidants. You may be familiar with the terms beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, collectively known as provitamin A.
Not a fan of sweet potatoes? There are plenty of delicious options that provide provitamin A. Try vegetables like winter squash, kale, collards, turnip greens, carrots, and sweet red peppers. Mango, cantaloupe, and grapefruit are also great sources of provitamin A.
Kakadu Plums – Best Source of Vitamin C
Move over, oranges. Let me introduce you to Kakadu plums. A single plum has 481 mg of vitamin C, which is 530% of the recommended daily serving. Vitamin C protects the fluids that surround the lens of the eye, called aqueous humor. The concentration of Vitamin C is higher in the eye than in any other body fluid, making it essential for healthy eyes. The human body cannot produce or store vitamin C, so it’s especially important to consume it regularly.
I’m guessing Kakadu plums might not be at your local supermarket, so let’s look at some great alternatives. You’re probably already aware that citrus fruits such as orange, kiwi, lemon, guava, and grapefruit have plenty of Vitamin C. However, don’t forget your vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts. Other vitamin C-rich fruits include papaya, cantaloupe, and strawberries.
Sunflower Seeds – Best Source of Vitamin E + Selenium
A handful of sunflower seeds can curb your hunger, while also supplying significant amounts of vitamin E and selenium (a trace mineral that helps your body absorb vitamin E). Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant. It travels throughout the body neutralizing unstable molecules called free radicals. These molecules can damage cell membranes, such as healthy eye tissue. This is another vitamin the body does not produce on its own, so it’s important to get foods with Vitamin E in your diet.
Nuts are exceptionally rich sources of Vitamin E. Choose one or two that you enjoy and add to your diet on a regular basis: almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, peanuts and Brazil nuts. There are also several cooking oils that have high amounts of Vitamin E, such as wheat germ oil, hazelnut oil, and sunflower oil.
Kale – Best Source of Lutein and Zeaxanthin
It seems like everyone is telling you to eat kale, right? Once again, kale is a superfood. Kale has high amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, which filter harmful high-energy blue wavelengths of light. This protects and maintains healthy cells in the eyes. These two antioxidants are found in high quantities in the retina of the eye but are not produced by the body. Eating foods with lutein and zeaxanthin will ensure the eyes have what they need to function properly.
People either love or hate kale. If you’re in the latter group, don’t worry. Many green leafy vegetables and other green or yellow vegetables will have plenty of these antioxidants. Try spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens, turnip greens, sweet corn, or broccoli.
Mackerel – Best Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Mackerel and many other types of fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. While there’s still some debate in the eye care community as to its specific benefits, most optometrist believe that omega-3 fatty acids lower inflammation and improve tear production (lessening dry eye), while antioxidants provide protection to our eyes.
If mackerel isn’t your favorite seafood, there are plenty of other fish in the sea (pun intended). Try salmon, herring, oysters, sardines, trout, tuna, or anchovies for a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re vegetarian, here are some other choices: chia seeds, Brussel sprouts, walnuts, and flax seeds.
Hopefully we’ve given you the information you need to plan a diet that prioritizes eye health. If you need some more help, check out The American Macular Degeneration Foundation’s book Eat Right for Your Sight. It’s a combination of world-class recipes, along with easy to read scientific explanations for their recommendations.