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Preserving Vision Through Diet

July 19, 2012 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 14 Comments

Preserving Vision Through Diet

More than a million Americans are blind. The good news is that all four of the most common causes of vision loss may be prevented with a healthy plant-based diet—age-related macular degeneration, diabetes, glaucoma, and cataracts.

See my 2-min. video Preventing Macular Degeneration with Diet for a discussion of the relationship between vision loss and Harvard’s Alternative Healthy Eating Index (Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score offers an alternative to the alternative). Diabetes is not only a leading cause of blindness, but also of amputations and kidney failure. Thankfully diabetes can be prevented and even reversed.

Glaucoma is a deterioration of our optic nerve, the nerve that connects our eyes to our brain, and is second only to cataracts as the world’s leading cause of blindness. Surprisingly, we still don’t know what causes it, so there’s been a desperate search for environmental and dietary influences.

As I show in my 2-min. video Prevent Glaucoma and See 27 Miles Farther, the most protective dietary component—decreasing the odds of glaucoma by 69%!—was found to be the consumption of at least one serving of collard greens or kale per month. Just once a month or more. The silver and bronze medals for most protective food went to weekly carrot and peach consumption, respectively.

We think it may be the lutein and zeaxanthin, two yellow plant pigments in greens that seem to know right where to go. When we eat them, they hone right into our retinas and appear to protect against degenerative eye disease. This is not a unique phenomenon. Lycopene is the red pigment in tomatoes found protective against prostate cancer.  Guess where it goes when a man eats a tomato? Straight to the prostate. Beta carotene in foods may prevent ovarian cancer and happens to build up in one’s ovaries.

These phytonutrients not only protect, but also may improve our vision. Their peak light absorbance just so happens to be the wavelength of the color of our planet’s sky. According to a recent study, by filtering out that blue haze, “individuals with high macular pigment [lutein and zeaxanthin phytonutrients from greens]” standing atop a mountain on a clear day “may be able to distinguish distant mountain ridges up to 27 miles further than individuals with little or no pigment.”

Don’t eggs also have significant amounts of these critical eyesight-saving nutrients? That’s the egg industry scrambling the truth—see my 2-min. video Egg Industry Blind Spot. I’d also encourage folks to stay away from lutein pills (and beta-carotene supplements).

Finally, the leading cause of blindness and vision loss: cataracts. In my 2-min. video Preventing Cataracts with Diet I profile a study of 27,670 people with a wide range of diets. The study included so-called “high” meateaters, moderate meateaters, “low” meateaters, and fish-only eaters, versus those eating vegetarian and those eating vegan.

The researchers went out of their way to choose health-conscious subjects to help factor out smoking, exercise, and other nondiet variables, and so the “high” meat consuming group? Only 100 grams a day–that’s just like 1 serving in one meal a day. In the U.S. we average more than 300 grams a day, so this is like reverse Starbucks labeling. You know how their “tall” is the small? Well here their “high” is really quite low by American standards.  Yet even compared to health-conscious light meat-eaters, those cutting back on meat even further could drop their associated cataract risk 15%. Those cutting all meat other than fish had 21% lower risk. Those cutting all meat—the vegetarians—appeared to drop their risk 30% and those going a step further and eliminating eggs and dairy had 40% less risk than the healthy one-serving-a-day meateaters.

The researchers conclude: “Overall, compared with meat eaters who consumed 100g meat and meat products/d[ay], fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans had approximately 20%, 30%, and 40% lower risk of cataract, respectively.” Similar stepwise reductions of risk can be seen with other diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. A stepwise drop in risk as one’s diet gets more and more centered around plants. 

-Michael Greger, M.D.

Image credit: fern0922 / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • BPCveg

    Given stepwise drop in risk as one’s diet gets more and more centered around plants, it is suprising that life expectancy of vegetarians has not been shown to be much greater than omnivores.

    • Henry Thoreau

      Studies show in general omnivores are living longer sicker lives. I agree, it would be great to get an extra twenty or more years but I would settle for more healthy years. 

      • http://poxacuatl.wordpress.com/ Strix

         I guess being propped up by drugs allows them to live longer ? For some reason I got a picture of “Weekend at Bernie’s”. Ugh. So sad. I’d rather expire earlier than live an extra 10 years in a “facility,” in pain, or as a burden.

    • http://poxacuatl.wordpress.com/ Strix

       I wonder if life-long healthy-eating vegans live longer? The key being “healthy-eating”!! I bet there aren’t many (so many are eating junk, and other semi-healthful, like Adventists also include fake meats and processed foods, salt and sugars).
      Apparently the Okinawans are the longest lived, but they are only near vegan. BUT they don’t consume dairy. So I wonder if dairy is the culprit here. Healthwise for humans, dairy has always seemed the most insidious and dangerous to me. I don’t know.

      • BPCveg

        Why do you think dairy is th most dangerous?  Would your statement also apply to skim dairy?

        • http://poxacuatl.wordpress.com/ Strix

           I guess, it’s just in everything in so many ways and although parts of “meat” are used as well, it’s just not as “offensive” to people’s senses — their eyes maybe. Dairy looks nice and its various forms (as additives and go by undetected) can be in so many things, seemingly harmless. Meat is a very specific thing that people would notice they are consuming. Not sure I’m making sense! I just think people in general, and vegetarians, specifically, give a pass to dairy as harmless or less harming…

          I think, healthwise the fat-free are just as bad if not worse: They take away some of the bad fat, sure,but then now you’ve got a chunk of concentrated protein! Not to mention concentrations of pesticides… Bad news.

          • BPCveg

            Thanks, Strix, for explaining your perspective. ‘The China Study’ by T. Collin Campbell makes a case against milk protein. Yet, the dieticians of USA and Canada are still promoting milk and fish as important health foods.

          • http://poxacuatl.wordpress.com/ Strix

             Yes, China Study is a great book!
            It’s going to be a while before dieticians, doctors, nutritionists and especially governments change. Individuals have to first. :^(

    • Jan

       Length of life is not nearly as important as quality of life. I grew up in the midwest on steak and potatoes. As my diet transitioned from heavily red meat based to plant based with occasional seafood and chicken, I have noticed a lot of positive changes in my physique as well as my energy, eyesight and more. I’ll take quality over quantity any day. Since my two grandmothers lived to 91 ad 92 and my mother turned 89 today, I’m not too worried about length of life either.

    • wdcurry

      in these open-minded debates, it would be best to describe human “omnivores” correctly as carnists, thusly as one who chooses to eat meat and dairy. That one eats a certain way does not imply their correct physiology to eat that way, only a *choice* to eat that way, regardless of the correctness of nutrition absorption. Simply by only eating grass, i would never correctly be called a ruminant.

      Eating meat and dairy is a choice, not a biological requirement or adaptation. Humans are herbivorous, as easily shown by multiple indicators and generally by our ill-health.

      • VegAtHeart

        This is an important point. Misuse of the term “omnivore” likely contributes to the continuance of the myth that eating meat is a biological requirement or adaptation when, in fact, it is a choice.

  • HemoDynamic, M.D.

    This Blog is like Kale and Red Cabbage–so much useful nutritional information stuffed into such a small column! 

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