An Eye on Nutrition

Ironic, isn’t it? The more we learn about health and nutrition, the less healthy our country has become. Diabetes and hypertension are on the rise and obesity has outpaced smoking as the #1 cause of preventable death in the US. With a 33% obesity rate which will, if the trend continues, become 43% by 2020, it has never been more important for us to become proactive about our health rather than reactive; to focus on disease prevention rather than disease treatment.

So why is there disconnect between our understanding of nutrition and an increasingly sick country? Maybe we can blame it on our industrial food system or our fast food culture. Perhaps we can point fingers at the ever rising level of processed foods in our grocer’s aisles. Regardless of who or what is to blame, at the end of the day it is our responsibility to care for our own health. The good news is that it is never too late to adopt healthier eating habits for improved wellbeing–our bodies are incredibly malleable!

Would it be beneficial for our medical system to focus on giving advice for best health before disease ever sets in? At Envision Eyecare, we approach care from a holistic perspective. For instance, patients are often surprised when, as part of our comprehensive yearly exam, we take their blood pressure. It gives my technicians the opportunity to explain that the eyes are attached to the rest of our bodies so what is good for your overall health is also good for your eyes. Furthermore, by evaluating the tiny blood vessels in the back of the eyes, we can access risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, and other heart diseases. The merits of a healthy diet, exercise, and sun protection are discussed as it relates to not only the eyes, but the entire body as well.

This message continues in the exam room, where I relate to patients the concept that the 364 days of the year they are not in my exam chair, they are their own stewards for best eye health. Our patients are currently enjoying the capabilities of new software in our office that allows us to continue care beyond the exam room by sending them customized emails regarding disease prevention specific to their individual eye health. We advise supplements with the nutrients Lutein and Zeaxanthin, as well as fish oil for sight preservation. More on that later…

Why is Envision Eyecare so vigilant when it comes to eye disease prevention? Among the top fears of Americans is the loss of sight, and every week in our office, we see the devastating effect vision loss has on quality of life of our patients. Isn’t it amazing? Most of us wake up every day, open our eyes, and simply see. It’s human nature to take for granted that which we are given. Oftentimes, only once something has been lost do we begin to truly appreciate it. Most eye diseases are painless and gradual, and it’s not until late into the disease process that patients are aware something has gone amiss. If we can identify degeneration early on, we can take steps to preserve vision.

Speaking of preservation, what steps can you take to preserve the sight you have, and in fact, protect and enhance it? Sun protection and exercise are key factors, yet we will focus on nutrition in this article. The risk of common eye diseases such as macular degeneration, cataracts, and dry eye syndrome can be reduced with proper nutrition. Common examples are DHA and EPA which are Omega 3 fatty acids derived from fish and flax seed. They are not only good for your heart and your mind; they also play a role in reducing the incidence of dry eye, cataracts, and macular degeneration. Lutein and Zeaxanthin, two antioxidants found in green leafy vegetables, reduce the risk of developing wet macular degeneration. Colorful fruits, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains may help to reduce the risk of cataracts.

Try to obtain your nutrients from food whenever possible. Fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables containing lutein and zeaxanthin, are the foundation for healthy eyes. Walnuts, pecans, and almonds contain mostly monounsaturated fats which lower bad cholesterol and are protein, vitamin, and mineral rich. For fruits and vegetables, it makes intuitive sense that the better conditions in which our food is grown, the more nutritious it is. Look for local, organic foods grown by reputable farms. Avoid processed foods, especially those high in trans-fats.

Be aware of the ratio of omega 6-to omega-3 oils in your diet. The typical Western diet contains far too much omega-6. These oils are derived from corn oil, margarine, carbohydrates, and red meat. On average, Americans consume a ratio of 16:1, omega-6 to omega-3, whereas a healthy ratio needs to be closer to 1:1. Make a goal of consuming three to five servings of fish per week (two or less servings for pregnant women), preferable fatty fish rich in omega-3s such as mackerel, trout, tuna, and salmon. Eat wild caught fish rather than farm raised whenever possible. If you are a vegetarian, consider flax seed consumption; yet be aware that it is questionable if males absorb omega-3s from flax.

Keep in mind that while it’s ideal to receive nutrition from food rather than supplements, there have been numerous articles in the last five years alone that demonstrate compelling evidence to the benefits of oral supplements for healthier eyes. At times, due to diet limitations, ingrained habits or reduced nutrient absorption, it makes sense to increase our intake of nutrients with supplements. It is amazing how many fish oil and eye vitamins are on the market these days and can be quite confusing to pick the best one. This is an important decision to make however, as taking a poor quality fish oil supplement can be more harmful than taking no fish oil at all. In addition, it’s important to look at which type of fish oil is in a given supplement. Look for highly purified, pharmaceutical grade fish oil with at least 1000 milligrams of EPA and DHA. Take anywhere from 1000-4000 milligrams per day, depending on your health care specialist’s advice.

Choosing the proper eye vitamins can be equally challenging. Most vitamins for the eyes are prescribed to prevent the advancement of dry macular degeneration to wet macular degeneration, the more aggressive form of the disease. Macular degeneration is the #1 cause of blindness in the U.S. and is responsible for more cases of vision loss than cataracts and glaucoma combined. Traditionally, lutein has been the primary ingredient in eye health supplements. Recent studies have highlighted the importance of another macular pigment called zeaxanthin. Look for supplements that have both of these important antioxidants. While supplements are an easy and healthy way to increase nutrient intake, there are precautions that need to be taken. If you smoke, avoid supplements and multivitamins with beta-carotene as this vitamin can increase the risk of lung cancer. If you take a multivitamin and are considering which eye supplement to take, be aware of the total combined intake of zinc, which should stay below 40 mg/day.

I hope the information in this article will be of value to you as you navigate the aisles of the grocery store, or if you and your doctor decide it makes sense for you to take supplements for best health. Remember that the cost of disease treatment far outweighs these preventive measures. The choices we make now will have an exponential affect on our health and quality of life later.

As a species, we are living longer and we want those years to be years with our vision intact. Take steps now to ensure your eyes can appreciate all of the beauty this life has to offer.