7 best foods for eye health: are you eating them?

Struggling with eye issues? Certain nutrients can help to protect our vision and prevent age-related conditions. A dietitian reveals what foods are good for eyesight.

While the belief that carrots can help you see in the dark is a myth, healthy eating can help to protect our vision and prevent certain eye issues and conditions as we get older.

“The incidence of eye diseases increases with age,” says John Lawrenson, professor of clinical visual science at City, University of London and a nutrition and eye health researcher. “The most common age-related eye condition is cataracts. Over 400,000 cataract operations are performed each year in the UK, with 75 being the average age for first cataract eye surgery.”

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – an eye condition that affects the central part of your vision, usually beginning in your 50s and 60s – is also common.

Woman holding up orange halves in front of her eyes.Credit: Shutterstock/stockfour
Oranges contain zeaxanthin – a carotenoid that is essential for good eye health.

“It’s the most common cause of certification for vision impairment,” says Lawrenson. “It can worsen without treatment gradually over several years (especially in ‘dry’ AMD) or quickly over a few weeks or months (which is more likely with ‘wet’ AMD). The advanced form of the disease [meaning there has been significant damage to eyesight] affects 2.4% of people over 50. This rises to 4.8% in people aged 65 or over, and 12.2% in people aged 80 or over.”

After Dame Judi Dench recently opened up about her struggles with AMDit made us wonder, should we be eating certain foods for eye health?  

As well as regularly getting your eyesight checked by an optician, “a heathy, balanced diet will provide the nutrients that may prevent or slow progression of these conditions,” he says. Dr Sarah Cook, a GP and registered associate nutritionist, adds: “Diet also plays a role in diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which can also affect the eyes.”

Advertisement

Foods that are good for eyesight

There is no single nutrient or food that is beneficial for eye health or prevents eye conditions, according to Lawrenson. He says that it’s more likely that they work together to do this. That’s why following a healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, oily fish, wholegrains and nuts is key.  

Food choices rich in combined antioxidant vitamins and minerals (fruits and vegetables are the main sources of antioxidants) might be particularly beneficial.

In fact, the second age-related eye disease study (AREDS2) found some evidence that a specific combination of antioxidants – vitamins C and E together with lutein, zeaxanthin omega-3, zinc and copper – reduces the risk of developing advanced disease by around 25% in those with existing AMD. 

“These vitamins and minerals, as well as essential fatty acids, are vital as the body can’t produce them, so need to be taken in the diet. Severe deficiencies in these micronutrients can impair vision,” adds Cooke.

Foods that contain these include: 

  • salmon 
  • mackerel 
  • chia seeds 
  • kale
  • spinach
  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • oranges
  • almonds
  • hazelnuts
  • avocados
  • lentils
  • saffron
  • dark chocolate
  • beans. 

We explore the benefits of some of these eye health foods in more detail below.

Oily fish

If you struggle with dry eye syndrome (as outlined below), then fish is your friend – specifically oily fish.

This is because oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, contains essential omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for eye health. Lawrenson says there is some evidence that omega-3s can prevent and possibly even treat (although the evidence for this is not conclusive) the condition. 

Current UK guidelines recommend that we should eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. However, in practice most of us aren’t achieving this – if that’s you then look to increase your intake.  

Walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are good alternatives if you’re vegan or vegetarian, says Cooke.

What is dry eye syndrome? 

This is a condition where the eyes do not produce enough tears, or the tears evaporate too quickly. It is often a natural part of the ageing process, but problems with the eyelids can be a cause. It can also be a side effect of some medications. Symptoms include eyes that are: 

  • feeling itchy, sore or gritty
  • red
  • blurry
  • sensitive to light
  • watery 

Leafy greens

Dark leafy green vegetables are excellent sources of the carotenoids – yellow, red and orange plant pigments found primarily in fruits and vegetables – lutein and zeaxanthin, with the highest amounts found in spinach and kale, which are crucial for eye health.

When lutein and zeaxanthin are broken down, another eye-friendly carotenoid – meso-zeaxanthin – is produced. All three carotenoids are naturally released in the macula (central region of the retina) and form the macular pigment. 

Cooke says that they act as antioxidants and protect the eyes by neutralising damaging molecules (free radicals) due to the sun’s powerful UV rays. What is particularly impressive is that these carotenoids even absorb blue light from the sun, which is potentially damaging for our eyes.  

Advertisement

Some evidence suggests they [delay progression of] age-related eye conditions, such as AMD and cataracts,” Cooke continues. 

“Other foods containing zeaxanthin include oranges, eggs and grapes, while lutein can also be found in red grapes, basil, parsley and egg yolks.” 

It is thought that eating at least 10mg of lutein a day has the most beneficial effect on the macular pigment. However, the average consumption of lutein and zeaxanthin in the UK falls short and is around 3mg per day. 

Saffron

You might not associate saffron with being supportive food for eye health, but the spice can benefit people with certain conditions. A review in the Nutrients journal has shown that daily saffron supplementation can significantly improve visual acuity (the ability of the eye to distinguish shapes and details that you see) in people with AMD.  

The same review noted that two long-term studies showed these improvements occurred within three months of taking the supplement, after which few or no changes were detected. 

In people with persistent diabetic maculopathy (a symptom of the complication diabetic retinopathy, where blood vessels in the macula become leaky or blocked), the review also shows significant improvements in visual function after taking 15mg a day of crocin (a compound in saffron) for three months. 

Featured product

Holland & Barrett Saffron 30mg – 30 Capsules

RRP: £15.99

Holland & Barrett Saffron 30mg – 30 Capsules

How can diabetes affect your eyes and how can diet help? 

Diabetes can affect your eyes and vision, and some people can develop diabetic retinopathy. Lawrenson says: “If left untreated, “it can lead to sight loss and blindness. People with diabetes also have a higher risk of developing cataracts.”

Lawrenson and Cooke agree the key to reducing diabetes-related complications is by controlling blood sugar and blood pressure. While no specific foods can prevent diabetic retinopathy, Cooke says certain foods can help with diabetic control and eye health. “This means a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, wholegrains, nuts and unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, seeds and avocado,” she says.

“Ensuring you’re not eating too much salt, saturated fats and sugar through reducing ultra-processed foods, such as cakes, biscuits and crisps, is important, too.” 

Berries

Not only do the health benefits of strawberries include supporting your brain health, but they also play an important role in your eye health, along with other berries like blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. This is thanks to the high vitamin C content of these fruits.  

Cooke says: “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the eyes from molecules that can be harmful.” It is also needed to produce collagen (a protein in your body), which is important for the eye structure. Getting enough vitamin C is important as we age because the amount of collagen we produce decreases 

“Vitamin C can also be found in tomatoes, grapefruits, oranges, lemons and mangoes,” says Cooke. 

Nuts and seeds

Other foods for eye health include almonds, hazelnuts, peanut butter and sunflower seeds. This is because they are great sources of vitamin E. Like vitamin C, vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the eyes from harmful molecules. While more research is required, Cooke says: “Vitamin E may also prevent AMD from worsening.”  

She says avocados also have good levels of vitamin E and recommends eating these foods regularly. 

Cocoa

Perhaps a pleasant surprise, cocoa can benefit your eyes because it is high in copper. Copper is also an antioxidant and helps maintain the structure of the eyes,” notes Cooke. As well as cocoa, “copper is found in oysters, sunflower seeds, leafy greens and wholegrains.

Even more reasons to enjoy those couple of squares of chocolate. But bear in mind that dark chocolate (at least 70%) is probably a better option because the higher cocoa content means it has higher levels of copper. 

Pulses

Helping you to eat healthily on a budget isn’t the only thing pulses are good for. They are also a great food for eye health because they contain high quantities of zinc. “Zinc is present in high concentrations in the retina and the blood vessels that supply the retina,” says Cooke.  

“Zinc also works with vitamin A to form the protective pigment melanin and helps protect the eyes from the sun’s UV rays,” says Cooke. This is why it’s important to get enough of the antioxidant from your diet. “Shellfish and red meat are also high in zinc,” adds Cooke. Be aware that current government guidelines recommend we limit red and processed meat to 70g (cooked weight) or less per day. 

Does dehydration cause dry eye syndrome?

Some health sources suggest that staying hydrated can prevent dry eye syndrome, but Lawrenson says there is little evidence to confirm this. Cooke adds: “Eye lubrication is dependent on many factors, including vitamin and mineral intake, essential fatty acid intake, screen time, contact lens wear and UV light exposure.

“If you are very dehydrated, your eyes may feel dry, but this is not the same as dry eye syndrome.” 

Despite this, it is still important to drink enough fluids to support bodily functions. Aim for the recommended six to eight glassesroughly 1.2 litres or 2.1 pints, which equates to six 200ml (7 fl oz) glasses or eight 150ml (5 fl oz) glasses – per day. 

Advertisement
Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her

Updated:

Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

  • instagram
  • linkedin