More and more lay people are aware of the importance of nutrients and health. Nonetheless, it may not occur to everyone that there’s a connection between nutrients and the eyes. As a developmental optometrist, I make recommendations to my patients on a daily basis about the importance of various supplements and dietary changes for their eye health.
To understand why nutrients are important to the eyes, let’s first understand a bit more about the visual system. The eye is part of the brain/central nervous system. Furthermore, two-thirds of the nerves in the brain are from the visual system. Vision is much more than the ability to see clearly. Vision does not occur in the eye; it occurs in the brain. It is the ability to take incoming visual information, process that information and obtain meaning from it.
A developmental optometrist or behavioral optometrist, is an optometrist who treats functional vision problems. Functional vision problems are those related not necessarily to eyesight, but to other components of the visual system such as headaches, double vision, dyslexia, concussions and TBI, spelling difficulties, educational and reading difficulties. And many of these conditions benefit from nutrients.
Most children have been taught that carrots are important for the eye. This is partially correct. Let’s explore dietary changes that can improve the visual system.
Vitamin A is very important for the visual system and the immune system and to prevent dry eyes. Vitamin A is found only in a limited number of foods, including liver and palm shortening. Fruits and vegetables that are orange in color (carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and cantaloupe) have beta carotene which has to be converted in to vitamin A in order for the body to use it. However, not everyone’s body coverts beta carotene.
Zinc: The highest concentration of zinc in the body is found in the retina. In addition to eye health, it is critical for focus and concentration, immune health, physical healing, mood, appetite and digestion and so much more. It is found in very limited foods. These include sprouted/soaked pumpkin seeds, red meat, herring and oysters.
Potassium and Magnesium are two minerals which often are found together in foods, and work together in the body. In addition to poor eye muscle control and headaches, low magnesium can lead to dizziness, poor memory, constipation and many other health issues. Symptoms of low potassium may include dizziness, leg cramps, fatigue, weakness and heart palpitations. Good food sources are sweet potato, avocado, whole grains, bananas, orange squashes and leafy vegetables. Both magnesium and potassium are used to metabolize other nutrients.
B vitamins, in a form that the nervous system can use, are critical for both structure and function of the eye since the eye is part of the nervous system. These include methylcobalamin/activated B12, methylfolate/activated B9 and P5P/activated B6. It is best to avoid food and nutrients that are fortified with synthetic and unnatural forms of these B vitamins that the body has to convert into a methylated form. Liver is the best food source of methylcobalamin. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of folate which some can convert in to methylfolate.
Omegas/Cholesterol: Just the right balance of good and bad cholesterol, as well as carbohydrates, are critical for us. The right balance of fats helps with energy and mood, focus and overall health. Sources of the good omegas include olive oil, coconut oil (note that this oil will not become hydrogenated if it’s fried) and palm shortening. Incorporating these in to the diet in unlimited amounts will lead to not only healthier brains, but healthier bodies, including aiding weight loss. All natural fats, including animal fats, are good for us. Unnatural, hydrogenated sources, such as margarine, are unhealthy.
It should be noted that nuts and seeds, as well as legumes and some whole grains, contain something called phytic acid which actually decreases our minerals such as potassium, magnesium and zinc. Foods that contain phytic acid are therefore not good sources of nutrients, unless we first soak them for many hours in hot water to remove as much phytic acid as possible.
We don’t need to expend a lot of effort to eat healthy. We do need to stock up our pantry and learn to incorporate nutrient dense foods into our diet. Some examples include: Replacing margarine with palm shortening. Tossing a salad with an olive oil dressing. Sprinkle coconut flakes over oatmeal. Make a refreshing smoothie with coconut cream, avocado and lime juice (no one will taste the avocado—the lime will cover it up). Simple dietary changes can lead to significant health and visual benefits.
Dr. Michal Luchins, an optometric physician, runs the Family Vision & Learning Center in Suffern. She can be reached at or 369-3235.