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Eye.C.U. — How Loading Up on Nutrients From Plant Foods Can Help Your Eyes

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Did you know that your eyes are the only part of your brain visible on the outside of your body? It’s true! (In fact, place a finger on your eyelid when it’s closed and you’ll get a good sense of the texture of your brain. Isn’t that wild?)

When you think about it though, it makes sense that nutrients that are essential for the brain and nervous system are also important for the eyes. What’s more, many of these nutrients can be found in plant-based foods, making them easy to work into every day for not only these specific body parts, but for your whole system. And just like it’s never too early to start caring for your brain, giving attention to eye health before it’s an issue, can save a lot of stress in the long run.

When it comes to tailoring our diets to ensure certain organs or systems receive everything they need, it’s just as important to think about what we’re not putting in, as well as what we are. Excessive consumption of sugars, refined salt, processed food (especially refined grains), trans fats and saturated animal fats can all cancel out the positive effects of the foods listed below. Think, too, about what you put on top of your eyes: things like makeup and personal care products are easily absorbed through the skin and can impact eye health. Plant-based, non-toxic, products tend to be the best option; food-grade brands are great if you can find them!

As you plan your shopping list for the week ahead – which of course will include a selection of these plants, right? – double check that sugars and processed junk aren’t making an appearance.

Then head to the farmers’ market and load up on these nutrients … in the form of delicious veggies.

Beta Carotene

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This natural orange-red pigment – think brightly-hued foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and squash – is what the body converts into Vitamin A, an essential piece in the healthy eye puzzle. Vitamin A promotes healthy eye function and tissue growth and helps prevent night blindness. Juicing or blending produce is a simple way to work more of this good stuff into your diet. (Bonus: repurpose the leftover pulp in these delicious Juice Pulp Carrot Cookies.)

Lutein and Zeaxanthin

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These proteins, found in green leafy veggies like kale, broccoli and chard, reduce the risk of developing chronic eye diseases, including those that can come with aging like cataracts and macular degeneration. According to research done at Harvard, just 6mg of lutein a day can reduce your risk for macular degeneration by 43 percent. Spinach, collards and turnip greens top the list for lutein content: try this Ayurvedic Spinach Detox Soup or these Hummus Collard Wraps for a big boost of these important nutrients.

Vitamin C

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Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, meaning it prevents damage to the cells of the eye by absorbing the brunt of the impact of free radicals – unstable molecules that can cause harm to otherwise healthy tissue. The more antioxidant activity we have in the body, largely acquired by what we eat, the better protected our cells are from this damage. Specifically for the eyes, Vitamin C can help reduce the risk of cataracts and when taken with a broad spectrum of other nutrients (ie. a varied diet!), it can prevent a loss of visual acuity. Use that great visual prowess to identify bell peppers, leafy greens, tomatoes, citrus and papaya at the market, then whip up some Stuffed Peppers or a Mint-Citrus Smoothie.

Vitamin E

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Just as this vitamin keeps things running smoothly in the body and helps promote healthy nervous system transmission, it provides antioxidant support to the ocular system and protects against free radical damage. The best part? It’s also a fat, so it happens to be found in some of the most delicious foods: almonds and macadamias are great sources, as are sweet potatoes. So really, that makes these Almond Joy Bars good for you!

Essential Fatty Acids

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Your brain is a big ball of fat in your head, and your eyes by extension, are too! Working essential fatty acids (especially omegas 3 and 9) into your diet is a key way to keep these lipid-based organs happy: they maintain the structure of the nervous system and help fuel cells, in addition to ensuring retinal function and visual development. Find anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy omega-3 fats in walnuts and seaweed and also important (though lesser-known) important omega 9 fats in pistachios, avocados and hazelnuts. Coconut oil is also a great brain and eye-supporter, so work it in for smooth nerve transmission.

Zinc

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Zinc, which can be found in pumpkin seeds, cacao, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, lentils, black beans and sprouted whole grains, is essential for helping preserve night vision and helps the cells of the eye uptake other nutrients like Vitamin A. It’s easy to find in a plant-based diet when you consider that a variety of foods contain it.

Add more of these eye healthy foods to your regime and reap the benefits for years to come!

Lead Image Source: Les Black/Flickr

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