by ROSALIND RYAN, femail.co.uk
Your mother’s advice that carrots can help you see in the dark may have been more than a ploy to get you to eat vegetables.Research has now proved that eating certain foods can improve your eyesight, reverse the signs of optical ageing and keep your eyes in good health.
One of the most common causes of poor sight is a condition called macular degeneration. This condition accounts for 50 per cent of all blindness and sight problems in the UK.
Imagine that your eye is like a camera. There is a lens and an opening at the front that focuses objects onto the retina at the back of your eye. The macula lies in the centre of the retina, which is sensitive to light.
Sometimes the cells of the macula become damaged and you lose the ability to appreciate colours or focus on detailed activities like reading. The condition rarely causes total blindness but can blur your central vision and sometimes make you sensitive to light.
It normally affects those over 60 years old, earning the name age related macular degeneration (ARMD), but a genetic form of the condition can also affect children and young people.
Doctors do not know exactly why the cells of the macular start to fail. One theory is that ARMD is triggered by free-radicals, harmful chemicals that your body picks up from sunlight, the atmosphere and cigarette smoke.
But there are some steps you can take to protect your eyes for the future. Follow our guide to eating your way to better eyesight.
Eat your greens
A recent study by the Florida International University found that eyes containing higher amounts of a nutrient called lutein were up to 80 per cent less likely to be suffering from ARMD.
Lutein protects the eye by forming pigments in the macula. The pigments help with vision by filtering out harmful blue light wavelengths that can damage the eye. The more pigments your eye contains, the less likely it is to fall prey to ARMD.
The Eyecare Trust, a national charity devoted to raising awareness of eye health, says, ‘There is increasing evidence to show that eating vegetables containing lutein is crucial to maintaining pigment density levels in the macula.’ Unfortunately lutein is not generated naturally by the body so you need to make sure you are getting enough from other sources.
These are mainly green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli and kale. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating a teaspoon of green leafy veggies with a small amount of fat raised blood lutein levels by nearly 90 per cent.
You need to eat lutein-rich vegetables for several months before seeing any benefits. But if you get bored of eating spinach, you can take a vitamin supplement to boost your lutein levels. These are available from all major health food stores.
A study published in Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science discovered that volunteers taking 10 mg of natural lutein supplements every day for 12 weeks significantly increased the amount of macular pigment in their eyes.
Start crunching on carrots
It is true – eating carrots can help you see in the dark. The essential nutrient responsible is carotene which is turned into vitamin A by the liver.
Vitamin A protects the eyes by helping to absorb the light energy that passes into the eye. Increased levels of vitamin A means
your eyes can absorb more energy and become more sensitive in dim light, helping you see more effectively.Karen Sparrow, spokeswoman for opticians Vision Express, says, ‘Children that are deficient in vitamin A often have dry eyes and in extreme cases can suffer from night ‘blindness’ where they have trouble seeing in the dark.’
Good sources of carotene are carrots, mangoes and cabbage. You can also find it in cod liver oil, milk and eggs.
Another fruit famed for its ability to boost night vision is blueberries. Anecdotal evidence from RAF pilots in World War Two shows they felt their night vision improved after eating blueberries.
The ‘magic’ ingredient in blueberries is a group of compounds called anthocyanosides. These attach to the area of the retina that is responsible for adjusting the eye to see in the dark.
You will need to eat blueberries for more than two months before starting to notice any effects. If they are difficult to get hold of, you can take them in capsule form or tablets, available from good health food shops. Aim to take up to 600 mg every day.
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Fresh blueberries are one of the most popular summer treats of all time. They are sweet, succulent, full of nutrients, and can be eaten freshly picked as well as incorporated into a variety of recipes.
Blueberries contain a type of flavonoid known as anthocyanins, which are responsible for giving foods like blueberries, cranberries, red cabbage and eggplants their iconic deep red, purple and blue hues. Anthocyanins are responsible for more than just the blueberry’s pretty blue color – they also contribute to the popular fruit’s numerous health benefits.
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods. It provides a nutritional breakdown of the blueberry and an in-depth look at its possible health benefits, how to incorporate more blueberries into your diet and any potential health risks of consuming blueberries.
One cup of fresh blueberries contains 84 calories, 0 grams of cholesterol, 1.1 grams of protein, 0.49 grams of fat, 21 grams of carbohydrate and 3.6 grams of dietary fiber (14% of daily requirements).
That same one-cup serving provides 24% of daily vitamin C, 5% vitamin of B6 and 36% of vitamin K needs. Blueberries also provide iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, manganese, zinc, copper, folate,beta-carotene, folate, choline, vitamin A and vitamin E.
In addition to anthocyanins, blueberries contain a diverse range of phenolic compounds such as quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin and chlorogenic acid – all of which contribute to their antioxidant capacity.
Due to these large amounts of bioactive compounds, blueberries rank very highly on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), which rates foods based on their vitamin and mineral content, phytochemical composition and antioxidant capacity. Foods that have the most nutrients per calorie have the highest rankings, and blueberries score among the top 20 fruits and vegetables.
Possible health benefits of blueberries
Consuming fruits and vegetables of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions. Many studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant foods like blueberries decreases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and overall mortality while promoting a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, and overall lower weight.
Maintaining healthy bones
The iron, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and vitamin K in blueberries all contribute to building and maintaining bone structure and strength.
Iron and zinc play crucial roles in maintaining the strength and elasticity of bones and joints. Low intakes of vitamin K have been associated with a higher risk for bone fracture, while adequate vitamin K intakes improve calcium absorption and may reduce calcium loss.5
Lowering blood pressure
Maintaining a low sodium intake is essential to lowering blood pressure. Blueberries are naturally free of sodium and contain potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which have been found to decrease blood pressure naturally.3
Studies have shown that type 1 diabetics who consume high-fiber diets have lower blood glucose levels and type 2 diabetics may have improved blood sugar, lipids and insulin levels. One cup of blueberries contributes 3.6 grams of fiber.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 21-25 grams of fiber per day for women and 30-38 grams per day for men.
Warding off heart disease
The blueberry’s fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and phytonutrient content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health. The fiber in blueberries helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood and decrease the risk of heart disease.
Vitamin B6 and folate prevent the buildup of a compound known as homocysteine. When excessive amounts of homocysteine accumulate in the body, it can damage blood vessels and lead to heart problems.
According to a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of East Anglia, regular consumption of anthocyanins can reduce the risk of heart attack by 32% in young and middle-aged women. The study, which was led by nutrition professor Aedin Cassidy, PhD, MSc, BSc, found that women who consumed at least three servings of blueberries or strawberries, showed the best results.
Vitamin C, vitamin A, and various phytonutrients in blueberries function as powerful antioxidants that help protect cells against free radical damage. They inhibit tumor growth, decrease inflammation in the body and help ward off or slow several types of cancer, including esophageal, lung, mouth, pharynx, endometrial, pancreatic, prostate and colon.1
Blueberries also contain folate, which plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair, thus preventing the formation of cancer cells from mutations in the DNA.1
Improving mental health
Population-based studies have shown that consumption of blueberries can reduce the risk of cognitive decline as well as Parkinson’s disease – a neurodegenerative disorder resulting from cell death in parts of the brain.
Studies have also revealed that in addition to reducing the risk of cognitive damage, blueberries can also improve short-term memory loss and motor coordination.4
Because of their fiber content, blueberries help to prevent constipation and promote regularity for a healthy digestive tract.
Weight loss and satiety
Dietary fiber is commonly recognized as an important factor in weight loss and weight management by functioning as a “bulking agent” in the digestive system. High fiber foods increase satiety and reduce appetite, making you feel fuller for longer and thereby lowering your overall calorie intake.
Collagen, the skin’s support system, relies on vitamin C as an essential nutrient that works in our bodies as an antioxidant to help prevent damage caused by the sun, pollution and smoke. Vitamin C also promotes collagen’s ability to smooth wrinkles and improve overall skin texture. Just one cup of blueberries provides 24% of your daily need for vitamin C.
How to incorporate more blueberries into your diet
Blueberries are available fresh, frozen, freeze dried and in jellies, syrups and jams. Make sure to check the label of frozen and dried blueberries for added sugars. When looking for jellies or jams, go for all fruit spreads without the added sweeteners and fillers.
- Use blueberries as fresh toppings on oatmeal, waffles, pancakes, yogurt or cereal for an extra burst of flavor in your breakfast
- Whip up a quick and easy smoothie using frozen berries, low-fat milk and yogurt
- Mix fresh or dried blueberries into a spinach salad with walnuts and feta cheese
- Fold them into muffins and sweet breads or blend them in a food processor with a little water and use as a fresh syrup to top desserts or breakfast foods.
Potential health risks of consuming blueberries
If you are taking blood-thinners such as Coumadin (warfarin), it is important that you do not suddenly begin to eat more or less foods containing vitamin K, which plays a large role in blood clotting.
It is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with a variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.
Written by Megan Ware RDN LD
and Helen Yuan, nutrition intern