Can Lutein Supplements Protect Your Eyes?

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss. Will special vitamin supplements protect your eyes? Nutrition Diva tackels a reader question.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #267

Nutrition Diva listener Gary sent in a doozy of a question. He writes:

"Every year, when I go for my vision check-up, my eye doctor recommends a special vitamin supplement that's supposed to protect my eyes -- specifically, one she sells in her office. Every year I decline, indicating that I eat the recommended servings of vegetables and fruits (which, as you confirmed in a recent post) should be sufficient.

This year, she challenged me on this, citing new research showing that even a healthy diet does not provide enough zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin to protect eye health.  The supplement she sells, of course, provided the solution. Would you comment on whether we really need these nutrients, which foods provide them, as well as the apparent conflict of interest involved in a health care professional selling supplements.";


Should Doctors Sell Supplements?

Let's start with the question of whether it's a conflict of interest for doctors to sell vitamin supplements to their patients. Although it is a subject of great controversy within the profession, it is not illegal for health care professionals to sell products to their patients. Most doctors who sell vitamins or other products insist that patient care is their primary motive. They argue that making products available in their offices makes it easier for patients to follow through on their recommendations and ensures that patients end up with high-quality supplements. 

Although I don't doubt the good intentions and integrity of doctors who sell vitamins, it's difficult for them to be objective about whether the benefit to the patient justifies the cost. 

However, there is no denying that such product sales can be a significant source of revenue for medical offices and that this presents a clear conflict of interest. One way I've seen doctors navigate around this conundrum is to offer supplements to patients at their own cost -- but this is hardly the norm. In a world where medical offices are struggling to find a workable business model, the profits to be made on supplements and other products have become increasingly attractive -- even essential.

This whole dilemma was thorny enough when everyone was more-or-less in agreeement that vitamin supplements were beneficial. Now, of course, we have a growing controversy over whether vitamin supplements actually improve your health.  No matter which side of this passionate debate you're on, you can find evidence to support your view. And that makes it increasingly important that those whom we're trusting to weigh the evidence for us have no dog in the fight.

Although I don't doubt the good intentions and integrity of (most) doctors who sell vitamins, I think it's even more difficult for them to be truly objective about whether the benefit (to the patient) justifies the cost.  Even when there is no profit motive involved, we all have biases and beliefs that affect how we evaluate information -- and even which information we choose to evaluate.  

I try to base my opinions about health and nutrition on the available evidence. But I have to admit that once I've arrived at a point of view, new evidence that supports my position gets my attention more easily and seems more convincing. I'm much more critical or dismissive of findings that don't confirm my preconceived notions. It's just part of being human -- and something I try to correct for.

Enough philosophy! Let's take a closer look at the specific nutrients Gary's doctor recommended....


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.