In this day and age, we’re all aware of the importance of eating the right foods to maintain our general health. We know we should include more fruit and vegetables in our diet, but can certain nutrients help specific parts of our bodies, like, for example, our eyesight?
Carrots and Vitamin A
While growing up, we all heard the old wives’ tale that eating plenty of carrots would help us to see in the dark. At the time, we probably just assumed that this was made up in order to get us to eat more vegetables. But, as with many old wives’ tales, there is some truth in this myth.
The fact is that while eating lots of carrots may not give our eyes superhero powers that enable us to see things as clearly at night as we see them in the day, they do contain beta-carotene. This is the substance that gives carrots (and other colorful vegetables, like sweet potatoes and peppers) their color. It also helps the body to make vitamin A, which is very important for our vision as it can help to slow down age-related macular degeneration and also lower the risk of getting cataracts.
Rhodopsin, or “visual purple,” as it is more commonly known, is a pigment in the retina that helps with light perception and it is this that enables us to see in low levels of light, i.e. at night-time. It allows the rods in the eye to change shape as they absorb light, thus allowing you to see better. Without this we would have poor night vision, even on a night with a full moon.
Interestingly, although beta-carotene is in many vegetables, the association between carrots and improved eyesight originated in World War II. The fighter pilots’ increased ability to spot their enemy targets in the night sky coincided with a particularly successful crop of carrots. Posters were designed claiming that carrots could help people to see better in a blackout. This was a myth promoted by both the British and German military to hide the fact that they’d developed a new radar system to help track planes in the dark.
Other vitamins that are important for eye health
While vitamins like vitamin A can’t perform miracles, they do have many benefits, for eyes as well as for the rest of the body. Most vitamins perform different functions for different parts of the body, but there are some that have particular benefits for eyes.
Many studies have shown that vitamin E is a great antioxidant that helps to protect cell membranes. It has been shown to help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration. The best sources are sunflower seeds, nuts, for example, almonds, and spinach.
Vitamin C, which is available in many fruit and vegetables, for example, oranges, broccoli, sprouts etc., has well known benefits for the immune system and cell renewal, but it also helps keep the watery fluid in our eyes healthy. This fluid nourishes and protects our eyes and can help to prevent diseases such as glaucoma, as well as cataracts and macular degeneration.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin are naturally occurring yellow pigments that are in lots of vegetables and are found in high concentration around the macular, the part of the human eye responsible for central vision. They are also antioxidants and have been shown to slow down macular degeneration.
The health benefits of eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables are well known. They not only help to keep our bodies healthy by boosting our immune system and with cell renewal, they also help prevent age-related eye problems that can occur in later life. It’s never too early, or too late, to take steps to preserve our health. And a well-balanced, healthy diet is not only beneficial for our health, but delicious too.
Nothing in this article is to be construed as medical advice, nor is it intended to replace the recommendations of a medical professional. For specific questions, please see your eye care practitioner.
Jonathan Scarlet works for CooperVision and is passionate about learning and writing about diet and health. In his free time he enjoys travelling, playing soccer, and spending time with his family. Read more about some of CooperVision’s contact lens and eye care related articles here.