Best Food for Healthy Eyes in Children

Eyes not only help us find our way, but also contribute to our development by helping us acquire knowledge through visual learning. Eating these foods can keep your eyes and eyesight healthy.

By Divya Karthik

Best Food for Healthy Eyes in Children

Our eyes are our windows to the world. Yet, we start abusing them from a very early age by indulging in activities such as reading in low light or rubbing them to get relief from irritation caused by pollutants. Nutritional deficiencies also play a role in causing a deterioration in eye health by giving rise to diseases such as xerophthalmia (Vitamin A deficiency) and nutritional optic neuropathy. In fact, poor nutrition is a leading cause for cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Taking a cue from this, we can understand that good nutrition can help in preventing and retarding progression of several eye diseases.

Nutrients are classified as essential or non-essential. Nutrients that are produced within our body and do not need to be obtained from food are called non-essential nutrients . Examples include cholesterol, which is present in all animal cells. Essential nutrients, on the other hand, must be obtained from food sources, because our body either does not produce them or produces them in amounts too small to maintain our growth and health. Essential nutrients include water, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.

How to improve eye vision

A balanced diet is important to maintain our overall health and keep our eyes healthy. Also, how diet affects the eye condition depends a lot on the eye problem an individual has.

Vitamin A: The most important vitamin for vision

Vitamin A is essential for healthy vision. It is also essential for immunity and maintenance of mucous membranes. Deficiency of this vitamin leads to poor vision and increased possibility of respiratory, intestinal and genitourinary infections.

Vitamin A deficiency can occur due to the following three reasons:

  • Reduced intake of foods rich in vitamin A
  • Poor intestinal absorption of vitamin A, usually because of diarrhoea
  • Increased need for vitamin A during infections such as measles, herpes simplex and malaria

Foods rich in vitamin A:

  • palm oil
  • liver
  • milk
  • dark green leafy vegetables
  • spinach
  • sweet potatoes
  • peppers
  • coloured fruits like papaya, mango and carrots, which contain beta carotene, a source of vitamin A.

Cataract

Cataract is the clouding of the lens, which is an important part of the eye. The lens helps to bend light rays and focus them on the retina.

Non-modifiable risk factors to the lens are:

  • increasing age
  • family history
  • gender

Modifiable risk factors are:

  • smoking
  • exposure to sunlight
  • diseases such as diabetes
  • poor nutrition

Higher intake of carbohydrates and higher dietary glycemic index (dGI) are associated with increased incidence of nuclear and cortical cataracts

The lens has a natural antioxidant called gluthathione. Studies have shown that antioxidants have a significant role in preventing and slowing down the progression of cataracts. These include vitamins C, E, carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Individuals with the high intake of lutein and zeaxanthin have a significantly lower risk of developing cataracts. Lutein and zeaxanthin are pigments found within the lens, retina and macula. They help to protect the eyes from the effects of ultraviolet radiation.

Sources for vitamin E are:

  • almonds
  • peanuts
  • corn oil
  • sunflower seeds

Sources of vitamin C are:

  • oranges
  • grapefruit
  • tangerines
  • green pepper
  • tomatoes

Source of lutein and zeaxanthin are:

  • dark green leafy vegetables
  • broccoli
  • corn
  • peas
  • tangerines

Glutathione (found in asparagus) has been found to be beneficial in delaying the progression of cataracts.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) 

This is the most common cause of irreversible blindness in the developed world in those aged more than 50. The Age-related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) showed that a combination of high levels of antioxidant vitamins A, C and E (in combination with the mineral zinc) significantly reduce the risk of advanced macular degeneration and its associated visual loss.

Recommended doses of these vitamins are:

  • Vitamin C – 500 mg
  • Vitamin E – 400 IU
  • Vitamin A (as beta carotene) – 15 mg
  • Zinc (as zinc oxide) – 80 mg
  • Copper (as cupric oxide) – 2 mg

Individuals who have a diet rich in green leafy vegetables show a reduced risk of developing AMD. Also, lutein is also known to protect the eyes.

Being overweight is known to be a significant risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, 80 per cent of diabetics are found to be overweight at the time of being diagnosed with the disease. So, maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes can adversely affect the eyes in more than one way. Changing blood sugar (glucose) levels can cause temporary blurring of vision and, in the longer term, the development of cataracts at a younger age.

So, to reduce the risk of developing cataract, good diabetes control should be coupled with:

  • controlling blood sugar (glucose levels)
  • tightly controlling blood pressure
  • controlling cholesterol levels

At present, there is no evidence that taking nutritional supplements such as vitamins and micronutrients can prevent diabetes or diabetes-related complications from developing or progressing.

Dry eyes

Dry eyes is a common condition. It occurs when the eyes fail to produce the adequate amount of tears required for lubricating and keeping the eyes moist. Clinical trials have shown that omega 3, a group of fatty acids that we get from our diet, can have a positive effect on dry eye symptoms when taken in certain quantities. Omega 3 is also helpful in the treatment of dry eyes and prevention of cataracts. 

Omega 3 can be obtained by consuming oily fish such as anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout, herring and fresh tuna. The National Health Service recommends that we eat at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish. Those who do not eat fish can consume flaxseed/linseed or rapeseed oil and soy products such as tofu, walnuts and eggs.

Individuals who smoke should not take supplements containing beta carotene as this has been associated with a higher risk of lung cancer. However, natural sources of beta carotene do not seem to pose an increased risk.

It also important to cut down on added sugar in the diet. Added sugar is found in items such as cakes, fizzy drinks, chocolate and other sweet foods such as pastry and jam. There can also be hidden sugar added to some pre-prepared savoury foods such as pasta sauce and baked beans. However, there is no need to cut down on natural sugars found in foods like fruit and milk.

Vitamin B complex deficiency can lead to optic atrophy through demyelination of the nerves. Treatment includes cessation of alcohol intake, cigarette smoking and parenteral injections of hydroxocobalamin (vitamin B12) weekly.

Foods rich in vitamin B complex are:

  • meat
  • liver
  • yeast
  • eggs
  • potatoes
  • milk
  • peanut
  • beans
  • cereals like corn and millet

In a nutshell, a healthy diet for the eyes should include:

  • Vitamin A: Cod liver oil, liver, carrots, sweet potatoes, palm oil
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin: Dark green vegetables, egg yolk, corn, mango, spinach, lettuce
  • Vitamin C: Oranges, strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cherries, grapes
  • Vitamin E: Peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds
  • Selenium (an antioxidant): Yeast, seafood
  • Zinc: Oysters, wheat, nuts
  • Omega 3 Fatty acids: Cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, trout)

It is recommended that an individual should take five servings of fruits and vegetables, and two servings of nuts every day along with fish at least two days a week for healthy eyes. Regular eye checkups for detection of problems is also a must. Also, encourage your child to do regular eye exercises and and follow the eye expert's tips on how to keep eyes healthy. The art of parenting is all about taking care of your health as well as that of your child.

The author is an eye doctor at Aravind Eye Care.

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