The National Eye Institute estimates that 21 million Americans suffer from at least one cataract — a clouding of the lens in the eye — and that this prevalence will rise to 30 million by 2020. Other statistics surrounding cataracts are similarly high. For example, cataract surgery is the most commonly performed elective operation in the United Kingdom, where annual rates have risen 10-fold since 1968.
Recent research points to several factors for the jump in numbers: smoking and sunlight exposure are thought to increase a person’s risk of developing cataracts. A diet that lacks healing foods high in antioxidants may also play a role in boosting cataract risk.
To better understand the relationship between diet and eye health, researchers at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom) assessed the incidence of cataracts in ndividuals
consuming a wide range of diets.
Data were taken from the Oxford cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford) initiated in 1993. Upon enrollment in the study, participants completed a questionnaire providing information about important natural health choices and behaviors such as smoking, exercise, and dietary intake.
The participants were then categorized based on food intake patterns: meat eaters; fish eaters (eating fish, but not meat); vegetarians (dairy products and/or eggs, but not meat or fish); or vegans (no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products). Participants who had diabetes — a common cause of cataracts — were excluded from the study. The incidence of cataract diagnosis in 27,670 subjects was then followed for over a decade.
The researchers found that a total of 1,484 out of the 27,670 participants were diagnosed with at least one cataract during the study duration. Compared with individuals who remained cataract-free (controls), those with cataracts had a number of things in common. They were more likely to have smoked at some point in their lives; however, a higher percentage of controls were current smokers. Alcohol consumption was lower in those with cataracts than controls, and those with cataracts were more likely to be overweight than controls.
Not surprisingly, there was a strong relation between dietary pattern and cataract risk. Compared with individuals eating the most meat, those eating little meat were 15% less likely to develop cataracts. Fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans were 21%, 30%, and 40% less likely, respectively.
The researchers concluded that vegetarians and vegans are at lower risk of cataract development than meat eaters.
Food for thought: if you’ve been considering boosting your nutrition health by going vegetarian, here’s one more good reason to give it a try — the health of your eyes!