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The impact of diet on eye sensitivity: foods to include and avoid by Marnie Buller, Dietician & Jacqueline Beltz Ophthalmologist

Just as eating a healthy diet supports us to maintain general health, eating the right foods can contribute to overall eye health.  The benefits of paying attention to what you eat may include reduced eye sensitivity, moisture balance and cellular support.  As an eye surgeon and a dietitian, we’ve put together some our top food and nutrient recommendations to support eye health, along with a few watch outs.

Foods to include for Eye Health:

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to the health of the retina as well as the health of the meibomian glands.  These are the glands that produce oil and sit just behind the eyelashes.  Keeping them healthy results in a better-quality natural tear film, making them important for reducing and managing eye sensitivity.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids are found in fatty fish like salmon, trout, and sardines, they are also found in nuts and seeds like chia, hemp and flax seeds as well as walnuts.

 Omega 3 is an important food group for optimal eye health

  1. Lutein & Zeaxanthin

Lutein and Zeaxanthin are antioxidants which support eye health and can help to prevent many chronic eye diseases such as dry eye. Individuals with sufficient dietary intake of Lutein and Zeaxanthin are found to have reduced risk of severe age-related macular degeneration and of developing cataracts.    

Leafy greens like spinach, kale and broccoli amongst many other green veggies, are sources of these important antioxidants, together with egg yolks.

 Lutein and Zeaxanthin support eye health

  1. Antioxidant vitamins – ACE!

The benefits of eating a wide range of plant-based foods of all colours and types cannot be over-stated in terms of promotion of overall health. Eating a ‘rainbow’ of fruit and vegetable varieties also benefits eye health. 

Important nutrients found in our fruits and vegetables like Vitamin A,C & E have antioxidant properties which can help to protect cells from free radical damage from the environment around us. 

Vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and capsicums contain Beta Carotene, a compound responsible for giving them their orange and yellow pigment.  Beta carotene converts to Vitamin A in our bodies and studies have shown it may be beneficial for age-related macular degeneration.

Fruits rich in Vitamin C like citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, and tomatoes provide antioxidants that support the health of blood vessels in the eyes.

Nuts, seeds, mangoes, and vegetable oils are good sources of Vitamin E, which also has antioxidant properties.

 Nuts and Seeds

  1. Zinc-Rich Foods:

The mineral Zinc supports the health of the retina and macula and has been associated with normal eye function.

Zinc-rich foods include lean meats, poultry, seafood, dairy foods and legumes and pulses like peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds.

  1. Vitamin B – Rich foods:

Several B-group vitamins are important for maintaining eye health. Specifically, they play a role in regulating lubrication levels, insufficient lubrication can result in dry and sensitive eyes.

Vitamin B2, present in whole-grain products (brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat), avocados, and broccoli is important in protecting eye cells from damage. Additionally, Vitamin B6, found in potatoes, kale, salmon, and sardines, as well as Vitamin B12, found in liver, mackerel, dairy products, and eggs are examples of foods which can contribute to supporting overall eye health.

 Avocados and Eggs contain vitamin B which is good for the eyes

  1. Vitamin D

Vitamin D has important anti-inflammatory properties and may play a protective role in dry eye syndrome, a common cause of sensitive eyes.

Vitamin D is found in oily fish like salmon and tuna and is also found in egg yolks. Most Vitamin D however is delivered from exposure to sunlight on the skin, rather than dietary sources.  Given the risk factors of direct sun exposure to our skin, many people are found to be Vitamin D deficient and therefore supplementation may be useful for people with dry eye syndrome.  Look out for a supplement containing Vitamin D3 as it increases Vitamin D levels in the blood more effectively than the alternate Vitamin D2.

  1. Water:

Staying well-hydrated is essential for maintaining the moisture balance in the eyes, avoiding inadequate lubrication of the eyes, leading to dry eyes and increased sensitivity. 

 

Here’s a list of the foods to watch out for, it’s a good idea to limit or avoid these:

  1. Ultra-Processed Foods:

Many foods undergo processing steps like cooking, canning, grinding and preserving. These are all appropriate methods of preservation that have been used for many years. Many minimally processed foods are still nourishing options.  However, as we have developed new technologies in the food industry, many of the items stocked on the supermarket shelves contain high levels of unhealthy fats, sugar, salt and chemical additives and fall into the category now known as ultra-processed foods. 

A diet high in ultra processed foods, can lead to greater oxidative stress and risk of macular degeneration.

Shopping the perimeter of the supermarket where fruit, vegetables, fresh-baked bread, dairy, meat, seafood and poultry are found rather than the packaging-dense aisles in the middle is a great strategy.  A good rule of thumb is if the food contains more than 10 ingredients, including substances you’ve never heard of and you wouldn’t ordinarily find in your pantry, and if it just doesn’t resemble the whole foods we detailed in the ‘include’ section, it’s likely ultra-processed and best avoided. 

  1. Sugary Foods:

Foods high in sugar may contribute to inflammation which affects overall eye health.  Over consumption of sugar can also lead to development of type 2 diabetes and risk of damage to the retina and blood vessels in and around the eyes.

Some key watch-outs in the high-sugar space are sweet snacks like lollies, ice cream, chocolates, cakes, biscuits and muffins, sauces like tomato sauce, pasta and stir-fry sauces, and salad dressings, many breakfast cereals and energy bars.  Sugar sweetened beverages include juice, soft drinks, sports drinks and cordials and should be consumed in moderation for optimal general and eye health.

  1. Saturated fats and trans fats:

Similar to high-sugar foods, it’s a good idea to minimise foods high in saturated fats and avoid trans fats as these can contribute to inflammation and cellular damage, potentially affecting eye health.

Some saturated fat in the diet via dairy products, eggs, lean meat, fish and poultry is completely fine when part of a balanced eating plan, however avoiding fried foods and ultra-processed snack foods will help to reduce the over-consumption of saturated fat and keep your diet free from trans fats.

  1. Excessive Alcohol:

Excess alcohol can impact the neural communication pathways between the brain and eyes and affect eye muscles in the short-term.  Tear film can also be affected, leading to dryness and sensitivity.  Heavy alcohol consumption over the long-term may accelerate age-related macular degeneration.  

Current Australian guidelines recommend intake for healthy adults doesn’t exceed 10 standard drinks per week and not more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.

Summary

In summary, maintaining healthy eyes involves a balanced diet with a variety of whole foods. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and essential minerals can help prevent eye conditions. Eating a colourful mix of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fish, eggs, dairy products and lean meats can contribute to normal eye function and staying well-hydrated with sufficient water intake is important for overall eye health. 

These steps also reflect the Australian guide to healthy eating recommendations to support overall health and wellbeing, so there’s nothing to lose increasing focus on a well-balanced diet for your eyes and your health.

 Bowl of food showing a rainbow of colours that is good for eye health

It's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for personalised advice based on individual health needs and conditions.

This article was written by Dr Jacqueline Beltz, BMedSci, MBBS, FRANZCO, MSurgEd, Ophthalmologist and founder of OKKIYO and Marnie Buller MDiet, BHSc(Nutr), Accredited Practising Dietitian and Registered Nutritionist.  For more information about Marnie Buller or to book a consultation click here.

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