Although the exact cause of cataracts is unclear, research suggests that free radicals, or oxidation, may be to blame. Free radicals are unstable chemicals formed in the body when we are exposed to environmental toxins. These harmful chemicals can be found in air, food and water. As pollutants increase in our environment, free radical damage is also on the rise. When free radicals come into contact with our cell membranes or DNA, they can cause cell weakness or cell death. Oxidation is linked to every degenerative disease such as cancer, heart disease, natural aging and cataracts. Oxidation can damage the proteins and enzymes in the lens of the eye and cause cataracts to form.
If free radicals are the villain, antioxidants are the ultimate superhero. Antioxidants are molecules that neutralize free radicals before cell damage occurs. The most prominent antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C and selenium. Since the body cannot synthesize antioxidants, they must be incorporated into the diet. This is the perfect time of year to find fresh fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants that protect your eyes from cataracts.
Vitamin E has many other health benefits besides protection against cataracts. It protects your skin from UV rays, allows cells to communicate with one another and protects you from prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Good sources of vitamin E are sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, dark leafy greens, and papaya.
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Beta-carotene is known to protect against cancer and aging as well as prevent cataract formation. Because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is best to pair your food source of beta carotene with a fat like nuts or oil to aid in absorption. The best sources of beta-carotene are sweet potatoes, kale, carrots, turnip and mustard greens, spinach, and butternut squash.
Vitamin C may be helpful in fighting cataracts by slowing their progression. The American Optometric Association recommends at least 250 mg of daily vitamin C for optimum eye health. Five servings of various fruits and vegetables provide 100 grams or more of this powerful antioxidant, but there are a few vitamin C superstars. The green hot chili pepper reigns supreme with an impressive 243 mg/100 g serving. If you like to kick up the heat, you can get all your daily vitamin C from just four of these spicy little guys! Other good sources of vitamin C are guavas, bell peppers, dark leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, papaya and the poster child for vitamin C—the orange.
With the beautiful colors and varieties of fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants, you have many choices for healthy, nutritious foods to protect you from free-radical damage. Go treat yourself to a trip to the produce section of your grocery store or a local vegetable stand to keep those eyes healthy and keep cataracts away!