As your eyes and vision change throughout your life, as you may suspect, there are "best" foods for your eyes at various stages. Before you are even born, nutrition helps to strengthen and support your vision. As you grow and age, different foods and nutrients can support your unique vision needs during each stage of life.
Prenatal Nutrition for Vision Health
Two weeks after conception, your eyes began to develop, and over the next four weeks, all of your major eye structures formed. This is a time when your eyes were particularly vulnerable to injury. Good prenatal care by your mother and screens for diseases such as German measles prevented malformation and damage. At 26 weeks gestation, your eyes began to open, and you could see. If your mother enjoyed fish regularly during her last trimester, you were exposed to plenty of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid important for healthy vision development and retinal function.
During pregnancy, a quality prenatal vitamin, proper prenatal care, and plenty of omega-3 essential fatty acids are important for healthy vision development. Food sources of DHA (and EPA, another important omega-3) include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, anchovy, trout, and halibut.
Infant Nutrition for Vision Health
At birth, babies can't see as well as older children or adults. Their eyes and visual system aren't fully developed. But significant improvement occurs during the first few months of life, and nutrition has a role in supporting ideal development.
Your baby's need for DHA doesn't end once they're born. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the retina of the eye, representing 93% of all fatty acids in the eyes. From birth to 2 years old, DHA is an important nutrient to promote healthy vision development, and the ideal way to receive this essential fat is through breastmilk. However, the amount of DHA found in breastmilk is based off how much DHA mom consumes, so mama, make sure you're consuming enough DHA yourself.
Other nutrients important for eye health, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, are also passed through breastmilk and their levels are dependent on mother's dietary intake. For example, the deposition of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin into the retina occurs early in life, and their content in breastmilk may then be critical to the development of the infant visual acuity. To increase the amount of these phytonutrients in breastmilk, mom shall increase her intake of fruits and vegetables, especially the yellow, green, and orange-colored ones.
Mother's breastmilk is the ideal food for infants. DHA and phytonutrients such as flavonoids and carotenoids are crucial nutrients for vision development, even before birth. Mothers, if you're breastfeeding, ensure you're consuming enough of these nutrients yourself so your milk contains sufficient quantities too.
Childhood Nutrition for Vision Health
Eye focus, tracking, depth perception, and other aspects of vision continue to develop throughout early and middle childhood. The best foods you can eat as a child for vision health are fruits and vegetables rich in vision supportive vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants like beta-carotene, that target eye health.
As a parent, serve your kiddo all the colors of the rainbow, especially the yellow, green, and orange-colored ones.
Vitamin A supports ocular health and eye function, particularly with night vision. Orange colored vegetables are high in beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A for the body. Vitamin A and foods high in beta-carotene can be found in eggs, grass-fed butter, milk, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, and apricots.
Vitamin C helps maintain ocular integrity and structure, along with helping maintain normal eye function and health. The antioxidant properties of vitamin C protects the lens of the eye from free radicals that form as a result of sunlight on the eyes. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin E is another antioxidant vitamin that supports vision health. Vitamin E is found in nuts such as walnuts and pecans, leafy green vegetables such as spinach, brussels sprouts, and eggs.
Children need a diet rich in varied fruits and vegetables to support continued vision health with plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Adult Nutrition for Vision Health
As you grew from a child to an adult, your need for antioxidants to support your vision increased with your exposure to free radical damage from sunlight, environmental toxins, and the aging process. The eyes are an organ particularly at risk of free radical damage, and high levels of antioxidants are needed to protect them from degenerative eye disease. According to The American Optometric Association, adding powerful antioxidants to your diet can help maintain normal eye function and health.
Researchers have linked eye-friendly nutrients such as lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, zinc and omega-3 essential fatty acids to help maintain and support normal visual function and long-term ocular health.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin can be found in kale, spinach, chard, radicchio, turnip greens, and mustard greens. This pair of antioxidants can act almost like a sunscreen for your eyes.
Beta-Carotene is found in yellow and orange colored fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash. Beta-carotene is a potent antioxidant carotenoid that can be converted to vitamin A.
Zinc is highly concentrated in the eyes, mostly in the retina and choroid, the vascular tissue layer lying under the retina. It's an essential trace mineral or "helper molecule." It plays a vital role in bringing vitamin A from the liver to the retina in order to produce melanin, a protective pigment in the eyes. Zinc is found in oysters, beef and lamb, spinach, and pumpkin seeds.
Adhering to good nutrition and including plenty of eye-supporting nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, to your diet as you age can help protect eyes and vision from age-related vision concerns that become more common as we grow older.
From conception to retirement, a good diet can support healthy eyes and good vision!
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods