The 5 Most Important Nutrients For Eye Health, Ranked By A Functional Eye Doctor
You heard it here first: It's time to focus on your eye health. Whether you have stellar, 20/20 vision or have been relying on contacts since the moment you turned 12, you should keep eye health front of mind. After all, for many, prioritizing eye health early on can delay age-related conditions like cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.
Take it from functional eye doctor Rudrani Banik, M.D.: "Our vision is so precious," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "We have two eyes, but they are very delicate organs. We need to protect them for our lifetimes."
Which raises the question: What can you do today to prioritize eye health? Well, according to Banik, it's all about incorporating the right foods into your diet. "Most eye diseases happen because of oxidative stress," she explains. "And one way you can prevent oxidative stress is to have those antioxidants in your diet."
Below, Banik breaks down her favorite antioxidant-rich superfoods so you can eat for your eyes:
"If I had to choose one food for eye health, I would say it's kale," says Banik. Now, you're probably thinking: Wait, what? No carrots? but Banik notes that kale is the most underrated superfood for eye health (carrots do have their moment, too, as you'll see later on).
What makes kale so eye-healthy is its macular carotenoids—namely, lutein and zeaxanthin. These nutrients act as antioxidants and help protect against various wavelengths of light (like UV light and blue light). "They absorb harmful rays and they neutralize them, so they are [like] internal blue blockers," says Banik. Granted, you can find lutein and zeaxanthin in a number of different leafy greens—spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard are also some great eye-health greens—but Banik herself is partial to the almighty kale.
Told you we wouldn't forget about carrots! The quintessential eye health superfood, carrots are chock-full of beta-carotene, which is a precursor to vitamin A. "It's absolutely critical for eye health because it helps to prevent night blindness," says Banik, a condition where your eyes don't adjust as well to dimly lit or darker areas. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, a vitamin A deficiency stops your retina from producing certain pigments that help you see the full spectrum of light.
It tends to happen in underdeveloped countries, especially in children with nutritional deficiencies—such as vitamin A. "Fortunately, it's reversible," says Banik. "If you catch it early enough and you supplement with vitamin A, you can reverse some of those changes." And that's where carrots get their well-deserved reputation.
On the subject of potent antioxidants, we can't forget about the "King of the Carotenoids," astaxanthin. This nutrient, found in algae, is five times more potent than beta-carotene (remember: that's what makes carrots so noteworthy) and 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C. "Algae that lives in the harshest conditions basically created this astaxanthin to protect itself from harsh sunlight, drought, and other dire circumstances," Banik further explains.
When you consume it, it can help protect your eyes: "There's actually studies done in which astaxanthin was found to be helpful in terms of blood flow to the eye, protecting it against oxidative stress and damage," she adds. Another study found that supplementing with astaxanthin can help eyes recover from extended screen time and maintain healthy visual function.
In terms of foods with astaxanthin, fish that eat the famed algae (like salmon) have the highest concentration of this super-antioxidant.
"You need, basically all of the B's," says Banik. "B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, and B12. You need them all." Take it from the research: One animal study indicated that supplementing with niacin (that's B3) was able to prevent the onset of glaucoma; thiamine, or B1, was found to reduce the risk of cataracts; another randomized controlled trial suggested that supplementing with vitamins B6, B9, and B12 led to a 34% reduced risk of developing age-related macular degeneration; and many individuals with cataracts were also found to be deficient in riboflavin, or vitamin B2. The list goes on and on.
Needless to say, the B's are important for eye health. That said, get your fill of sustainably sourced meat, poultry, fish, and eggs (great for B12). For plant-based options, go for nutritional yeast, plus beets and lentils (which contain niacin).
Circling back to those omega-3s, consider it another reason to stock up on salmon. In fact, the cell membranes of your retina contain DHA, which is a particular type of omega-3 fatty acid. Not to mention, these fatty acids also coat your eyes with moisture: One double-blind randomized trial even found that supplementing with omega-3s may help with dry eye syndrome.
It's a case for adding some oily fish to your plate, like salmon, tuna, oysters, and herring, as well as "different kinds of seeds, like chia seeds, hemp seeds, etc.," notes Banik.
If you're going to eat with eye health in mind, make sure to incorporate these five nutrients into your diet. Although, you don't have to be too meticulous about macros: "The best thing is a plant-rich diet. It doesn't have to be plant-based, but plant-rich, and get a variety of colors in your diet," says Banik. Simple as that.