Your eyesight is probably the most important of your five
Eye health goes hand-in-hand with general health, but there are
a few nutrients that are especially important for the eyes.
These nutrients help maintain eye function, protect the eyes
against harmful light and reduce the development of age-related
This article lists the main nutrients that will maximize your
eye health, their dietary sources and potential benefits.
Overview of Common Eye Diseases
Your risk of developing an eye disease increases as you get
older. The most common eye diseases include:
Cataracts: A condition in which the eye
becomes clouded. Age-related cataracts are a leading cause of
vision impairment and blindness around the world.
Diabetic retinopathy: Associated with
diabetes and a major cause of visual impairment and
blindness, this condition develops when high blood sugar
levels damage the blood vessels in the retina.
Dry eye disease: A condition marked by
insufficient tear fluid, which causes the eyes to dry up and
leads to discomfort and potential visual problems.
Glaucoma: A group of diseases characterized
by progressive degeneration of the optic nerve, which
transfers visual information from the eyes to the brain. It
leads to poor eyesight or blindness.
Macular degeneration: The macula is the
central part of the retina. Age-related macular degeneration
is one of the main causes of blindness in developed
Although your risk of getting these conditions depends to some
extent on your genes, your diet may also play a major role.
Bottom Line: The most common eye diseases
include cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and
diabetic retinopathy. Your risk of developing these diseases
depends on your age, genetics, chronic diseases and
1. Vitamin A
Vitamin A deficiency is one of the most common causes of
blindness in the world (1).
This vitamin is essential for maintaining the eyes’
light-sensing cells, also known as photoreceptors.
If you don’t consume enough vitamin A, you may experience night
blindness, dry eyes or more serious eye diseases, depending on
how severe your deficiency is (2).
Vitamin A is only found in animal-derived foods. The richest
dietary sources include liver,
egg yolks and dairy products.
However, you can also get vitamin A from antioxidant plant
compounds called provitamin A carotenoids, found in high amounts in some fruits
Provitamin A carotenoids provide around 30% of people’s vitamin
A requirements, on average. The most efficient of them is
beta-carotene, which is found in high amounts in kale,
spinach and carrots (3, 4).
Bottom Line: Vitamin A deficiency may lead
to night blindness and dry eyes. Vitamin A is only found in
animal-derived foods, but the body can convert plant-based
carotenoids into vitamin A.
2–3. Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Lutein and zeaxanthin are yellow carotenoid antioxidants known
as macular pigments.
This is because they are concentrated in the macula, the central part of the retina. The retina
is a layer of light-sensitive cells on the back wall of the
Controlled studies show that the intake of lutein and
zeaxanthin is proportional to their levels in the retina
One observational study in middle-aged and elderly people
showed that consuming 6 mg of lutein and/or zeaxanthin per day
significantly reduced the risk of age-related macular
The researchers also discovered that those with the highest
intake of lutein and zeaxanthin had a 43% lower risk of macular
degeneration, compared to those with the lowest intake
However, the evidence is not entirely consistent. A
meta-analysis of six observational studies concluded that
lutein and zeaxanthin may only protect against late-stage
age-related macular degeneration, but don’t affect early
development of the disease (8).
On the other hand, other observational studies suggest that
lutein and zeaxanthin may also reduce the risk of cataracts
Lutein and zeaxanthin are usually found together in foods. The
chart below shows some of their richest dietary sources,
according to the USDA (10).
Leafy greens are not the only good sources of these
carotenoids. Egg yolks, sweet corn and red grapes may also be
high in lutein and zeaxanthin (11).
In fact, egg yolks are considered to be one of the best sources
because of their high fat content (12).
Bottom Line: A high intake of lutein and
zeaxanthin may reduce your risk of eye diseases such as
macular degeneration and cataracts.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are important for eye health.
DHA is found in high amounts in the retina, where it may help
maintain eye function. It is also important for brain and eye
development during infancy. For this reason, DHA deficiency can
impair vision, especially in children (15, 16, 17, 18).
Dry eye disease occurs when the eyes don’t form enough tear
fluid. This causes the eyes to become excessively dry, leading
to discomfort and visual problems.
One study in people with dry eyes showed that taking EPA and
DHA supplements daily for three months significantly reduced
dry eye symptoms by increasing the formation of tear fluid
Omega-3 fatty acids may also help prevent other eye diseases. A
study in middle-aged and elderly people with diabetes found
that taking at least 500 mg of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
daily may reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy (23).
In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids are not an effective treatment
for age-related macular degeneration (24).
The best dietary source of EPA and DHA is oily fish.
Additionally, omega-3 supplements derived from fish or
microalgae are widely available.
Bottom Line: Getting adequate amounts of the
long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from oily fish or
supplements may reduce the risk of several eye diseases,
especially dry eye disease.
5. Gamma-Linolenic Acid
Gamma-linolenic acid is an omega-6 fatty
acid found in small amounts in the diet.
The richest sources of gamma-linolenic acid are evening
primrose oil and starflower oil.
Some evidence suggests that taking evening primrose oil may
reduce the symptoms of dry eye disease.
One randomized controlled study gave women with dry eyes a
daily dose of evening primrose oil that provided 300 mg of
gamma-linolenic acid. The study found that their symptoms
improved over a six-month period (27).
Bottom Line: Gamma-linolenic acid, which is
found in high amounts in evening primrose oil, may reduce the
symptoms of dry eye disease.
6. Vitamin C
The eyes require high amounts of antioxidants — more so than
many other organs.
vitamin C appears to be especially important, although
controlled studies on its role in eye health are lacking.
The concentration of vitamin C is higher in the aqueous humor of the eye than in any other body
fluid. The aqueous humor is the liquid that fills the outermost
part of the eye.
The levels of vitamin C in the aqueous humor are directly
proportional to its dietary intake. In other words, you can
increase its concentration by taking supplements or eating
foods rich in vitamin C (28, 29).
Vitamin C appears to play a protective role in the eyes, but it
is unclear if vitamin C supplements provide added benefits for
those who aren’t deficient.
Bottom Line: Vitamin C is an important
antioxidant, and getting enough vitamin C may protect against
7. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a group of fat-soluble antioxidants that protect
fatty acids from harmful oxidation.
Since the retina is highly concentrated in fatty acids,
adequate vitamin E intake is important for optimal eye health
Although severe vitamin E deficiency may lead to retinal
degeneration and blindness, it is unclear whether supplements
provide any additional benefits if you are already getting
enough from your diet (33, 34).
A meta-analysis of observational studies suggests that
consuming more than 7 mg of vitamin E daily may reduce the risk
of age-related cataracts by 6% (35).
In contrast, randomized controlled studies indicate that
vitamin E supplements do not slow or prevent the progression of
Bottom Line: Vitamin E deficiency may lead
to visual degeneration and blindness. For those who aren’t
deficient, supplements probably won’t provide added benefit.
The eyes contain high levels of zinc (38).
Zinc is a part of many essential enzymes, including superoxide dismutase, which functions as an
Zinc also appears to be involved in the formation of visual
pigments in the retina. For this reason, zinc deficiency may
lead to night blindness (39).
In one controlled study, elderly people with early macular
degeneration were given zinc supplements.
The participants’ macular deterioration slowed and they
maintained their visual sharpness better than those who got a
However, further studies are needed before strong conclusions
can be reached.
Natural dietary sources that are abundant in zinc include
oysters, meat, pumpkin seeds and peanuts (41).
Bottom Line: Zinc plays an important role in
eye function. One study suggests that supplements may slow
the early development of macular degeneration in elderly
Take Home Message
Many chronic diseases are preventable. You can avoid or delay
them by following healthy lifestyle habits, such as a wholesome
diet and regular exercise.
This also applies to certain degenerative eye diseases. Getting
enough of the nutrients listed in this article may help reduce
However, don’t neglect the rest of your body. Chances are, a
diet that keeps your whole
body healthy will keep your eyes healthy too.