May is Healthy Vision Month. According to the National Eye Institute, the number of Americans with age-related eye diseases is expected to double by the year 2050. What most people don’t know is that many eye diseases are preventable. A healthy diet, regular exercise and other lifestyle changes can make all the difference. Supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin, plant-based nutrients classified as carotenoids, can help your eye health, too.
What Are They?
There are actually over 500 known carotenoids – the plant pigments responsible for the yellow or orange color you see in foods like cantaloupe, carrots and salmon. In addition to orange and yellow foods, you’ll also find healthy doses of lutein and zeaxanthin in dark, leafy greens.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are present in the human retina and lens of the eye where they act as natural antioxidants, protecting the eye from damaging blue and ultraviolet light. In fact, these nutrients are even detectable in a developing baby’s eyes are early as the seventeenth week of pregnancy.
Numerous studies have shown that a diet rich in lutein and zeaxanthin supports good vision and healthy eyes. For older adults, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts are top causes of vision loss. A meta-analysis looking at eight clinical studies and almost 1,200 subjects with AMD concluded that those supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin showed significant improvements in sharpness of vision and contrast sensitivity, a condition that can make it difficult to drive at night.
Research is also looking at how lutein and zeaxanthin enhance visual function in younger people, which is supported by the fact that the two carotenoids are excreted in human breast milk. In human studies, high levels of macular pigment optical density (MPOD) have corresponded with better eye protection and enhanced visual function. The studies also found that subjects who supplemented with lutein and zeaxanthin had increased MPOD levels.
How to Take It
Although there is no recommended daily intake for lutein and zeaxanthin, the American Optometric Association advises adults to supplement with 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin daily, as these dosages showed health benefits in the most recent studies.
There is no recommended dose for children, but you’ll find these two vision-enhancing nutrients in a number of multivitamins formulated for kids. Talk to your pediatrician about whether or not a lutein/zeaxanthin supplement is right for your child.
If you prefer to consume these nutrients as foods, cooked kale and spinach rank highest in lutein and zeaxanthin content with 23.8 mg/cup and 20.4 mg/cup, respectively. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables are also a good source.
Karen Morse, MPH, is a freelance health and nutrition writer. In her free time, she enjoys Pilates, exploring nearby hiking trails and cooking up fresh, seasonal eats in the kitchen. Her work has appeared in Clean Eating, Weight Watchers, YouBeauty.com and others.