Eating lots of fruits and vegetables may help avoid cataracts, say researchers in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"High intake of fruits and vegetables may have a modest protective effect" against cataracts, they write. The research team included William Christen of Harvard Medical School and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Cataracts cause vision problems. They're cloudy, painless areas of the eye's lens that block the passage of light to the retina, the nerve layer at the back of they eye.
Cataracts can be surgically removed and are more common in older people. Native Americans and blacks are at higher risk for developing cataracts. So are people with a family history of cataracts.
What does your diet have to do with your eyes? Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may be the key, say the researchers. They note that past studies have been split on the issue.
Christen and colleagues followed more than 35,000 female health professionals for a decade. Back in 1993, the women filled out questionnaires covering the foods they'd eaten in the previous year. None had cataracts at that time.
Average daily intake was six servings of fruits and vegetables (two of fruit and four of veggies).
Over 10 years, the group had a total of 2,067 cataract cases. The women who ate the most fruits and vegetables were 10 percent to 15 percent less likely to be in that group. The "modest" advantage wasn't changed by smoking status or other cataract risk factors, says the study.
Cataracts were reported by the women, with medical confirmation in more than 91 percent of cases.
Load Up on Produce
The study didn't directly test the cataract-fighting powers of fruits and vegetables. It merely looked to see who developed the condition during the follow-up period. More studies should be done, say the researchers.
They note that self-reported food intake isn't always perfect. The women who ate a lot of produce also tended to be healthier in other ways (such as getting more exercise and having eye exams). Changes in eating and other lifestyle habits over the years weren't noted.
Meanwhile, there's good reason to eat more fruits and vegetables. "The possible beneficial effects of fruit and vegetables on the risk of many chronic diseases, including cataract, have a strong biological basis and warrant the continued recommendation to increase total intakes of fruits and vegetables," says the study.
The CDC recommends eating five to nine servings per day of fruits and vegetables. A serving is:
— A medium-sized piece of fruit
— Three-quarters of a cup of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice
— Half a cup of cooked or canned vegetables or fruit
— A cup of raw, leafy vegetables
— Half a cup of cooked dry peas or beans
— A quarter cup of dried fruit
Fresh, frozen, canned, and dried produce count. So does 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, says the CDC. Sorry, but deep-fried items (like french fries) and fatty or sugary sauces probably aren't the best staples in terms of health.
Remember to wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly in water, says the CDC.
The goal of eating more produce may sound good. But how do you make it work in real life? Here are some suggestions from the CDC.
— Slice a banana or strawberries on top of your breakfast cereal.
— Have a salad at lunch.
— Snack on an apple.
— Add a vegetable to your dinner plate.
— Try fruits and vegetables that you've never had before.
— Blend low-fat yogurt, fruit juice, and fruit (fresh, canned, or frozen) to make a smoothie.
— When eating out, look for dishes that include fruits or vegetables.
— Mix colors of fruits and vegetables. How about blueberries and red grapes, or carrots and peppers?
— Keep fruits and veggies visible and within easy reach. Put a big bowl of fruit on the table, or keep cut, cleaned produce at eye level in the refrigerator. Out of sight, out of mind.
— Retrain your brain. Start thinking of fruits and vegetables as the original fast food.
Got picky kids? The CDC offers these suggestions:
— Make frozen fruit kebobs with pineapple chunks, bananas, grapes, and berries.
— Shop with your kids and let them pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try.
— Make "trees" of broccoli chunks, "flowers" of carrots and cauliflower, and a "sun" of yellow squash.
— Top a bowl of cereal with a smiley face of banana eyes, a raisin nose, and a mouth made from an orange slice.
— Make ice cubes or popsicles of 100 percent fruit juice.
SOURCES: Christen, W. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 1, 2005; vol 81: pp 1417-1422. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Cataracts — Topic Overview." WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Cataracts — What Increases Your Risk." CDC: "Five A Day: Tips: Basics."