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More than a million Americans over 40 are blind from eye disease, while an additional 2.3 million are visually impaired. An even higher number — as many as 12 million — are estimated to be affected by macular degeneration which, though often barely perceptible in its early stages, is the leading cause of blindness in people over 65.

Despite these epidemic proportions, more than two-thirds of Americans are unfamiliar with macular degeneration, hampering efforts to prevent, detect and treat the ailment before it progresses to debilitating levels of vision loss.While macular degeneration — and other eye ailments — have a genetic component, there’s also plenty you can do for your baby blues (or greens or browns).

In addition to wearing sunglasses with UV protection and avoiding cigarettes here are some eye-optimizing items to add to your daily diet:

Cantaloupe for beta-carotene — a carotenoid your body converts to vitamin A, which is essential for proper eye function.Vitamin A deficiency has been associated with higher incidence of macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness among the elderly.

Other sources of beta-carotene include carrots, kale, spinach and apricots.And for an unexpected new entry into the beta-carotene category, check out this orange cauliflower just now hitting the shelves.

Spinach for lutein — to possibly promote eye health and cut the risk of macular degeneration.A pigment of the retina, lutein is believed to filter high-energy light waves which may cause free radical damage to the eyes and skin.Research suggests that 6mg to 20mg of lutein per day are needed to promote its possible benefits — an amount available in one cup of cooked spinach.

Other lutein sources include kale, collard greens, turnip greens, summer squash and peas.

Almonds for riboflavin — otherwise known as B2, studies show that those in the highest 20% of riboflavin intake (vs the lowest 20%) enjoy a 33-51% reduction in the risk of developing age-related cataracts.In addition, riboflavin deficiency can lead to vascularization of the cornea (clear front part of the eye that covers the iris and pupil) causing blurred vision.

Other plant sources for riboflavin include: beans (particularly soybeans), beet greens, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, peas and asparagus.

Vitamins C, E and Selenium for proper glutathione levels — Glutathione is an antioxidant manufactured by your body that functions as part of the defense system for your lenses, leaving them more vulnerable to oxidative damage when levels are deficient.Nutrients required to support glutathione levels include vitamins C, E and selenium.For “C” try red bell peppers, papaya, citrus fruits and kiwis.For “E” grab a handful of almonds or toss a salad of dark leafy greens.

Want to know the top food for selenium? Brazil nuts!

Soybeans for Zinc — Your eyes, especially the iris and retina, have one of the highest concentrations of zinc in your body.Preliminary research suggests a link between low zinc intake and eye maladies such as color blindness, cataract formation and optic neuritis — the inflammation of the optic nerve.

While the most traditionally cited sources of zinc include oysters, Dungeness crab and red meat sources, most vegetarians have adequate levels of zinc, despite the absence of such animal proteins in their diet. Soybean products such as tofu, soymilk and soy cheese might well be the reason, as soy not only contains zinc but other compounds that aid the mineral’s absorption.

Additional plant sources of zinc include peanuts, peas, lima beans, summer squash, potatoes, corn, Napa cabbage and Bok Choy.

Published May 3, 2004

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