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Can a healthy diet prevent cataracts?

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Cataracts are a leading cause of blindness in the world today.

Currently, the only treatment for cataracts is surgical removal of the cloudy lens, which is typically then replaced with an intraocular lens (IOL) during the cataract surgery.

While the exact cause of cataracts is unknown, experts believe that oxidative stress damages certain enzymes and proteins in the eye's natural lens, which causes the lens to become cloudy.

Although some research has produced conflicting results, eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidants and certain vitamins has been shown in several studies to be associated with a reduced risk of cataracts and their progression.

Diet, oxidative stress and cataracts

Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between damaging free radicals roaming the body and the antioxidants that keep them in check. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms (molecules) that are highly reactive with other atoms and molecules because they have unpaired electrons.

A diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of cataracts later in life.

In the body, a free radical usually is an oxygen molecule that self-stabilises by taking an electron from another molecule, which in turn tries to take an electron from another molecule, and so on.

Free radicals damage the body by stealing electrons from the normally healthy cells of organs and other tissues. This process of stealing electrons from healthy cells is called oxidation.

In the eye, oxidation affects proteins and fats in the lens to the extent that the lens becomes damaged and cloudy, creating a cataract. Preventing free radical damage with healthy foods, particularly those high in antioxidants, may help slow down this process.

Free radicals that damage our eyes and the rest of the body may originate from eating unhealthy foods, exposure to pollution or chemicals, smoking and ultraviolet radiation.

Some free radicals occur from normal daily metabolism, which means even people who don't have these risk factors need antioxidants found in healthy foods.

Healthy foods and cataract prevention

People who consistently follow a healthy diet that includes colourful fruits, vegetables and whole grains may show a decreased risk of cataracts.

Antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables that may reduce the risk of cataracts include vitamins A, C and E, lutein and zeaxanthin.

Consumption of fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, has also been linked to potentially reduced risk of cataracts or their progression.

Here is a sample of recent research that suggests a healthy diet and specific eye vitamins may help prevent cataracts:

  • Researchers in Sweden published the results of a study of the association between all antioxidants in the diet and age-related cataracts. More than 30,000 women aged 49 and older completed a dietary questionnaire and were observed for age-related cataract development for an average period of 7.7 years. The study authors found that women whose diet contained the highest total antioxidant capacity (TAC) were significantly less likely to develop cataracts, compared with those whose diets were low in antioxidants. The main contributors to dietary TAC in the study population were fruit and vegetables (44.3 percent), whole grains (17.0 percent) and coffee (15.1 percent).

  • Researchers in Australia found a diet high in carbohydrates may increase cataract risk. Evaluation of the eating habits of more than 1,600 adults revealed that individuals in the top 25 percent for total carbohydrate intake had more than three times the risk for cataracts than those in the lowest 25 percent for carbohydrate intake.

  • A 10-year study of more than 2,400 older adults in Australia found that higher intakes of, or the combined intake of, multiple antioxidants reduced the risk of cataracts in this population.

However, some other studies have failed to show an association between nutritional supplements and reduced risk of cataracts.

In two long-term Age-Related Eye Disease studies (AREDS and AREDS2) sponsored by the National Eye Institute in the US, neither study found use of daily multivitamin supplements containing vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc (with or without beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fatty acids) prevented or slowed the progression of cataracts.

And while all nutrients associated with cataract prevention in studies can be found in eye vitamins and vision supplements, many experts believe these substances should be acquired from a healthy diet rather than from nutritional supplements.

If your diet lacks key nutrients because you're not eating enough fruits and vegetables, it's wise to consider taking one or more daily nutritional supplements to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need for optimum eye health.

Prior to embarking on a regime of eye vitamins and other nutritional supplements, consult your optometrist. In some cases, taking too much of a specific vitamin or nutrient could be harmful to your health.

Shape up your diet for good vision

A healthy diet that provides good nutrition for healthy eyes includes:

  • Five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day

  • At least three servings of 100 percent whole grains daily

  • At least two servings of fish per week

The total calories consumed should be just enough to keep you at a healthy weight, based on your individual activity level and metabolism.

Dark green and colourful fruits and vegetables are great sources of eye-friendly antioxidants. They also contain folic acid and calcium — important nutrients which may also help reduce the risk of cataracts and should be included in a healthy diet.

To maintain a healthy diet, it is equally important to avoid fried foods, processed foods and sugary snacks and soft drinks — all of which appear to be associated with an increased risk of cataracts, as well as obesity and other health problems.

Reducing sodium in your diet is also a good idea, as researchers at the University of Sydney have found evidence that high salt intake may increase your risk for cataracts.

Giving up those greasy food, chips, and tasty sugary snacks and soft drinks may not be easy but it's worth it. Once you get used to eating delicious fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and other healthy foods, you won't miss junk food and your reward just might be both a healthy body and a lifetime of good vision.

Shield your eyes from UV

When taking steps to reduce your risk of cataracts, it's important to know that dietary modifications alone aren't enough.

It's also important to shield your eyes from the primary source of harmful UV radiation: the sun.

In addition to wearing a wide-brimmed hat that shades your eyes from direct sunlight, consider these UV-protective eye-wear choices:

Polarised sunglasses

Polarised sunglasses provide 100 percent UV protection and are available in a wide variety of colours and shades.

Photochromic lenses

Transitions-brand lenses and other photochromic lenses are clear indoors, darken automatically in sunlight, and provide 100 percent UV protection at all times.

UV-blocking contact lenses

Many soft contact lenses provide at least partial protection against UV rays entering the back of your eyes but UV-blocking contacts should be considered only supplemental defence against UV rays because they protect only the area of your eye covered by the lens. They don't protect the conjunctiva, sclera, or the eyelids from UV damage in the same way sunglasses or photochromic lenses do.

For the best choices in frame styles for UV-protective eye-wear, ask your optometrist for guidance.

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