September 21st, 2015

Set Your Sights on Carrots — and Greens!

As a child, you probably heard that carrots are good for your eyes. This may be because carrots (and other orange and yellow vegetables and fruits) are abundant in beta-carotene, which is a provitamin A carotenoid, meaning it is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is important for eye health, especially for night vision as it helps to produce a pigment called rhodopsin in the retina, which helps the eye detect low levels of light and allows us to see at night. As such, vitamin A deficiency is known to cause night blindness.

The idea that leafy greens benefit vision began to gain momentum about twenty years ago in research on age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease in which the photoreceptors in the macula are progressively damaged or lost, causing impaired vision. AMD is the leading cause of blindness worldwide. In 1994, a study on AMD found that higher total carotenoid intake was associated with a lower risk of the disease, and lutein and zeaxanthin were the specific carotenoids most strongly associated with decreased risk.

When looking at foods, a higher intake of spinach and collard greens (rich sources of lutein and zeaxanthin) were also associated with decreased risk. More studies followed many reporting that higher lutein and zeaxanthin intake was linked to lower AMD risk. Supplementation trials in AMD patients also reported increases in macular pigment (more lutein and zeaxanthin in the macula) and improvement in visual performance.

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