During the second World War, the UK Ministry for Food urged citizens to eat plenty of carrots. The bureaucrats explained that carrots gave fighter pilots superb night vision, and would help civilians see well during blackouts.
But for today’s over 50s, seeing well in the dark is probably not their biggest eye health worry. The real fear is blindness caused by age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that rises dramatically with age.
I know any number of seniors who have AMD. It’s as common as head colds in January.
While carrots do offer some protection, your search for eye-healthy foods should not stop there. Researchers have identified a new item not previously connected to AMD that provides a major safeguard against the disease.
A Huge Reduction in Risk
The study that unearthed the connection was conducted at the University of Sydney, Australia and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August.
The scientists compiled data from the Blue Mountains Eye Study (BMES), which began in 1992. This looks at diet and lifestyle factors that could have an impact on the risk of visual impairment in Australian men and women aged 49 and older.
The researchers reviewed the diets of 2,037 people who had filled out a food frequency questionnaire 15 years earlier. They were interested to see if any foods lowered the risk of AMD, as assessed by examining photos of the retina.
BMES had already reported on the effect of vitamins, minerals and macular pigments in the diet. For this study, the focus was on the impact of phytochemicals. Only one item stood out – oranges.
Those who ate at least one orange a day had a 61 percent reduced risk of developing macular degeneration compared to people who never ate oranges. Even eating a single orange a week offered significant benefits.
The Importance of Flavonoids
It’s not as if oranges didn’t have any competition. The researchers examined the effects of a wide range of foods, including tea, apples, red wine and many others, but only oranges demonstrated a protective effect.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Vitamin C.”
Wrong. The eye protection was not related to the oranges’ vitamin C content:
Senior author Bamini Gopinath said the results were exciting and novel because previous research had focused on well-known antioxidants – the “usual suspects” such as vitamins A, C, E and carotenoids, but little research has been done on other phytochemicals (compounds found in plants).
“In our analysis we accounted for vitamin C intake,” said Prof. Gopinath, “and the association persisted…so we know it’s not to do with the vitamin C. We speculate it’s likely to be the flavonoids…
“Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants [with] important anti-inflammatory benefits for the immune system.”
But There’s a Small Catch…
Prof. Gopinath emphasized people can’t count on oranges alone to protect them. Oranges have to be part of a healthy overall diet.
This view was confirmed in a recent study published in Ophthalmology which demonstrated that people who follow a Mediterranean style diet were 41 percent less likely to develop AMD compared to those who do not.
The diet is characterized by higher intake of fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes, unrefined grains, olive oil, moderate consumption of wine, and less meat and dairy produce.
In this study, no single component of the diet was linked to a lower risk of AMD, only the diet as a whole, leading the researchers to conclude that the combination of nutrient-rich foods has synergistic effects.