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
Episode #267

Do You Need a Supplement to Protect Your Eyes?

Lutein and zeaxanthin are antioxidants in the carotenoid family. Leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, and so on), corn, egg yolks, orange peppers, orange juice, summer squash, grapes, and kiwi fruit are all good sources.  Meso-zeaxanthin, on the other hand, is not found in fruits and vegetables. Your body produces meso-zeaxanthin from lutein. 

In the body, these nutrients tend to concentrate in the tissues of the eye, where they protect against damage from ultraviolet radiation. People whose diets are high in these nutrients (meaning, people who eat a good amount and variety of fruits and vegetables) have a lower risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, and other age-related eye diseases. 

Results of the AREDS2 Study

The problem is that most people don't eat a good amount and variety of fruits and vegetables. And here's where eye health supplements come into the picture. A big study, called the Age-Related Eye Disease Study, or AREDS2, took a look at whether supplements containing lutein and zeaxanthin could help reduce vision loss by closing the gap between recommended intakes and actual intakes.

They found that lutein and zeaxanthin supplements did help reduce the risk and/or progression of macular degeneration, but only in people whose ate very few fruits and vegetables.  So for Gary, who eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, it would not appear that the supplement his doctor is recommending would add any additional protection.

There was one other extremely interesting finding in this study that deserves mentioning. Taking beta-carotene supplements seemed to reduce the benefit of supplemental lutein and zeaxanthin. Researchers wonder whether concentrated doses of beta-carotene might inhibit the absorption of the other carotenoids. This does not seem to affect people who get their carotenoids from diet rather than supplements -- yet another argument for getting our nutrition from foods, not pills.

The Bottom Line on Eye Health Supplements

If you are eating your fruits and vegetables, an eye health supplement does not appear to offer any additional benefit. In fact, supplements containing a lot of beta-carotene might even interfere with your ability to get the maximum benefit from the healthy foods your diet. In my opinion, you're better off spending that money in the produce aisle or at the farmer's market. 

If you -- for whatever reason -- simply cannot or will not eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, a supplement containing lutein and zeaxanthin (but not beta-carotene) would certainly be better than nothing.  Just remember that no supplement can match the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables -- and not just for your eyes but for every cell and organ in your body.  

Even if you fall short of the recommended 5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruit a day, every serving you do eat moves you closer to health -- so, even if you do decide to take a supplement, keep trying to work more greens (and reds, and yellows, and purples) into your day. 

See also: How to Get More Vegetables into Your Diet

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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. 

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