Top scientists say these are best and worst foods for eye health

Scientists at the University of Southampton have made surprising advancements to understand the impact that high-fat foods can have on our eyes.

Worst foods for Age-related macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the biggest cause of irreversible blindness amongst adults in the UK and other developed countries. It’s a complex condition in which age, genetics, and lifestyle factors play a part. But chances of developing this condition are far higher, even as high as 60%, when Western style foods are consumed. The Western diet is low fibre, but heavy in fats, sugar and refined foods. So, it’s unfortunate that this diet, also known as the “meat-sweet” diet, is ingrained in the eating habits of so many Brits.

A recent survey found that 68% of us freely admit to eating ultra-processed food at least once a week. After all, is there a person among us who hasn’t half-heartedly rummaged through the fridge after a long day in the office before plopping down on the sofa to order a takeaway? That person must be called and commended as a beacon of self-restraint.

But what may be surprising is that the regular intake of unhealthy foods triggers retinal lipid imbalances, which causes the build-up of cholesterol and other fats. Fuelled by overconsumption of Western style foods, this build-up over time can result in small protein and lipid deposits in the retina, called drusen. These are tiny yellow or white spots. The presence of drusen in the macular- an area in the back of your eye that’s roughly the size of a grain of rice, is where signs of central vision loss can first be detected by an ophthalmologist.

DNA damage and death of photo receptors

An unhealthy diet can even damage DNA, say researchers at the University of Southampton. When we regularly consume foods high in refined fats and sugars, it generates unstable molecules called Free radicals. These further increase the risk of inflammation in retinal tissues. A combination of free radicals and chronic low-level inflammation results in eventual death of cells, arranged in a layer called retinal pigments epithelium. They protect our vital overlying photo receptors. “The death of photo receptors is irreversible,” explains PhD student Anna Muir, “when photo receptors in the macular die, it causes age-related macular degeneration.” Today, AMD impacts a third of UK adults over the age of 75.

"The death of photo receptors is irreversible. When photo receptors in the macular die, it causes age-related macular degeneration."

Thank you, carotenoids

But even if you are genetically predisposed to macular degeneration, there are some easy lifestyle adjustments that you can make. A healthy balanced diet can significantly lower the risk of developing AMD, even if you carry risk genes. This is mostly thanks to carotenoids in our food. Carotenoids are the plant pigments that give our fruits and vegetables their vibrant red, orange and yellow hues.

“Specific carotenoids called lutein and zeaxanthin can absorb potentially harmful blue light and provide protection from free radical damage to proteins and DNA in cells,” says Professor of Ophthalmology Andrew Lotery. “Some evidence shows that the intake of more carotenoids is linked with lower risk of AMD.” We can only intake carotenoids through food- regular consumption is essential to offer a level of protection from damage to our sight. 

"Some evidence shows that the intake of more carotenoids is linked with lower risk of AMD."

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Best foods for eye health

There are two food types that have been highlighted by the experts as rich in carotenoids- the Mediterranean diet and the Asian style diet.

“The “Mediterranean style” diet is made up of a high intake of fruits and vegetables combined with healthy fats like olive oil, and lean meats and fish," says Ms Muir. Asian style food is similar- low in dairy and red meats, but rich in fresh herbs, vegetables and whole grains. Spinach, bell peppers, tomatoes, kale, grapes, carrots, egg yolks... These are just some of the delicious staples in Asian and Mediterranean cooking which contain high levels of carotenoids. Studies show that even lightly frying certain vegetables increases availability of carotenoids, due to a presence of fats. 

So, we can still enjoy tasty provisions whilst taking care of our vision.

"The 'Mediterranean style' diet is made up of a high intake of fruits and vegetables combined with healthy fats like olive oil, and lean meats and fish."

There is still so much to learn about the relationship between different foods and how they affect the retina's cells and tissues. “These are important questions, as a healthier diet can offset developing AMD,” states Professor Lotery. The Southampton team are determined to find answers. Their hope is to encourage further understanding around the impact diet has on AMD to give better advice to present and future patients.

In the UK, there are about 700,000 people with some form of Age-related macular degeneration. Currently there is no effective cure for AMD, but with your awareness and support, we hope one day there will be. This vital research would not be possible without our wonderful donors and advocates at Sight Research UK. Help us turn science into sight by following along with this and other stories. You can sign up to our mailing list here. Thank you.

Scientists explain link between diet and AMD