Did you know that macular degeneration is the leading cause of legal blindness in people over 55 in the U.S.?  In the next ten years, the population of baby boomers over 55 will be six times greater than it was in 1990. In a mere decade, macular degeneration may reach epidemic proportions.

So what exactly is macular degeneration? Basically, it is damage to the central part of your retina (the macula) caused by aging. Our macula is what allows us to view details near and far -- it enables us to drive, read and see people's faces. Tell-tale signs of the disease are dark smudges that appear in your central vision.

There currently is no cure for the disease, but there is plenty that you can do to lower the risk of developing macular degeneration, or lower the risk of going blind once you are diagnosed, and it involves your diet. Dr. Johanna Seddon at Tufts University School of Medicine has linked the effects of antioxidants and other nutrients to eye health. 

While following a diet rich in antioxidants is not a cure all for the disease, it can help bolster your defense against it. Here’s what you should have in your pantry and refrigerator:

  • Vitamin A: liver, fish oils, egg yolks, dairy
  • Cartenoids (a precursor to vitamin A, such as betacarotene and lutein): red peppers, mangoes, kale, or other colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Vitamin D3: salmon, mackerel, sardines, beef liver, fortified milk
  • Vitamin C: fruits, cauliflower, green cabbage
  • Vitamin E: broccoli, peanuts, almonds, avocados, sunflower seeds
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: fatty fish, flaxseed, walnuts, squash, tofu
  • Zinc: oysters, crab, nuts, whole grains
  • Lycopene: tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit
  • Antioxidants: cranberries, blueberries, pomegranates, and other dark foods

For optimal eye health, there are a few culinary tricks, too. For example, if you are making a spinach salad, adding sliced oranges or strawberry slices will give you an extra boost of Vitamin C, which enhances the absorption of iron found in plant foods. You could even grill salmon and serve it on a bed of spinach topped with peppered strawberries for a delicious meal that promotes optimal eye health. 

Similarly, Vitamin D, A, E and K are fat soluble, so the presence of a bit of dietary fat helps with vitamin absorption. If you’re serving broccoli with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, for example, leave the nuts raw rather than toasting for that extra bit of oil. While toasting nuts releases the oils and intensifies the flavor, leaving nuts raw will maximize the potential health benefits.

Sometimes foods that are cooked are also more nutritious. In a spinach omelet, for example, cooking the spinach briefly helps your body retain more carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin.

It’s hard enough to know what to eat, let alone how, to save your eyes. And saying that mackerel is good for your eyes is all well and good, but who knows how to cook mackerel? And what other fish might work just as well?  (Hint: fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids…salmon, bluefish, herring, etc.) That’s why I wrote Eat Right for Your Sight. While I don’t have macular degeneration, I think it’s that important to eat well to protect our bodies. What's good for your eyes is also good for your heart, bones and the rest of you.

Jennifer Trainer Thompson is the author of 18 books, including Eat Right for Your Sight, which was published last spring in collaboration with the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.  A journalist who has written for The New York Times, Omni, Coastal Living and other publications, Jennifer has been a guest on many national media shows, including Good Morning America, CNN, NPR, and Live with Regis.  To learn more about macular degeneration, go to www.macular.org; to get in touch with Jennifer, go to www.jumpupandkiss.me