Nutrition plays an important role in optimising macular health and reducing the risk of macular degeneration. A healthy, well-balanced diet, which includes eye health foods, is good for overall wellbeing as well as eye health. For some people a supplement should also be considered.
“I know only too well that family history is a major risk factor for macular degeneration as my mother was diagnosed with the disease over 15 years ago.
When I tell people that because of my family history, I have a 50% chance of getting macular degeneration, most people are shocked. Since Mum and my two uncles were diagnosed I’ve learned about macular degeneration, so I am vigilant in taking care of my family’s nutrition by preparing food that helps protect our eye health.
I also make sure I have my eyes tested and macula checked often. I want to do all that I can to help my daughters minimize the possibility of developing macular degeneration.”
Jean Kittson, Foundation Ambassador
Adopting the following simple practices as a normal part of your diet can help reduce the risk of macular degeneration, whether or not you have been diagnosed with the disease:
- Limit the intake of fats and oils
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
- Eat dark green leafy vegetables and fresh fruit daily
- Eat fish two to three times a week
- Choose low glycemic index (low GI) carbohydrates instead of high GI
- Eat a handful of nuts a week
Lutein and zeaxanthin
Lutein and zeaxanthin are particularly important nutrients for the macula and are present in high concentrations in a healthy macula.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in particularly high levels in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and silverbeet. They are also present in a range of other vegetables such as peas, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, corn and beans.
Most of the best natural sources of lutein also contain high levels of vitamin K which can interfere with the function of some medications including the blood thinner, warfarin. This makes it very important for people who have been prescribed warfarin to consult the doctor before making any changes to diet. If enough lutein cannot be obtained from a natural diet, a lutein supplement should be considered.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important to eye health. All fish and shellfish contain omega-3s but higher concentrations are found in oily varieties of fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout, herring and sardines (and tuna to a lesser degree). Eat fish or seafood two to three times per week, either fresh, frozen or tinned.
Your diet should include a range of other nutrients that will support good macular health. These nutrients include zinc (sources include oysters, seafood, nuts and legumes), vitamin E (sources include nuts and whole grains) vitamin C (sources include citrus fruit, berries and tomatoes) and selenium (sources include nuts, particularly Brazil nuts)
Carbohydrates and glycemic index
The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale of 1 to 100 according to how much they raise blood sugar after eating.
Carbohydrates with a high GI are digested rapidly and produce a large and rapid rise in blood sugar. Low GI carbohydrates are digested more slowly, giving a more gradual but longer release of energy.
Low GI foods have proven benefits for health. There is now good evidence that those who eat a higher proportion of carbohydrates with a low GI compared to a high GI, have a lower risk of developing macular degeneration. People who have low GI diets tend to have less heart disease, lower cholesterol, less obesity, less diabetes and also less macular degeneration.
Low GI foods include most fruit and vegetables, whole grain cereals and whole grain breads and legumes. The glycemic index only applies to carbohydrates so protein and dairy (eg meat, fish, eggs and cheese) do not have a glycemic index.
Fats and oils
Limiting the intake of fats and oils is recommended as part of a generally healthy approach to diet. While in Australia doctors disagree about the role of margarine and oils in relation to macular degeneration, recent research shows those who consume one tablespoon of olive oil per day are less likely to develop late stage age-related macular degeneration. More research is required into this area.
Seeds such as flax seeds (linseeds) are often recommended by nutritionists for their high essential fatty acid content, however their relationship to macular degeneration has not been studied.
Although carrots are a good source of vitamin A, which is important for general health, they are not the best eye food that popular myth suggests. Choose dark green leafy vegetables as the main eye health vegetable and eat carrots in moderation as part of a balanced and varied diet.
Fresh, frozen or tinned
Frozen or tinned food, such as fish or vegetables is a very good and convenient alternative if the fresh variety is not available.
As part of a healthy diet, excessive consumption of alcohol should be avoided and no more than two standard drinks per day are recommended.
Consult your doctor
It is important to remember that any changes to your diet or lifestyle, including the taking of supplements, should be undertaken in consultation with your doctor.