Advice about nutrition and its impact on vision and eye health can be confusing and frustrating. One day a report tells us that a certain food or supplement is good for us; the next day another report tells us that it is not. But what can be said, without contradiction, is that the foods we eat (or don’t eat) play a major role in all aspects of health.
As humans, we are biological beings; part of the animal kingdom of life on this planet. We are the result of many years of evolution; a product of natural selection and our genetic inheritance. Research has shown that our genes have changed very little in the last 40,000 years. We have the same genetic makeup as our primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors- from 10,000 years ago. What we know today is that the foods we eat are chemical triggers that can turn genes (the good ones and the bad ones) on and off.
Proper nutrition for vision and eye health, and health in general, requires that we eat foods that are “gene friendly.” This means eating a diet of foods that contribute to turning the health-promoting genes on and turning the disease-promoting genes off. The diets of our primitive ancestors, who lived as Paleolithic or “stone-age” people, did just that.
Our “stone-age” ancestors ate a wide variety of wild plant and animal foods so that their diets consisted of healthy meats and animal organs, fish, shellfish, eggs, fruits, nuts, seeds, berries and complex carbohydrates in the form of wild plants, roots, and vegetables.
This “gene-friendly” diet provided four things:
a) the right balance of saturated and unsaturated fats for cell membranes and nerve function;
b) complex carbohydrates for fiber and the maintenance of stable blood-glucose and insulin levels;
c) high quality plant and animal protein for enzymes, muscles and other body tissue; and
d) an abundance of essential vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to act as antioxidants and enzyme system catalysts.
Our modern Western diet of processed foods with their high levels of refined grains, modern vegetable oils, sugar, salt and chemical additives, and low in important nutrients, is turning on genes that promote inflammation and chronic disease. When it affects the genes that control the eye, it can lead to such conditions as macular degeneration, cataracts, myopia, and diabetic and hypertensive retinopathy
The Ideal Human Diet for Your Vision
The right balance of saturated and unsaturated fats for cell membranes and nerve function. In numerous studies on the effects of dietary fat on health, the results have shown that it is not the total fat content that is a concern, but the balance of fats. Animal fats and oils were a very important part of primitive people’s diets, so much so that they were celebrated in their myths and legends. Nearly all hunted and gathered foods were perceived to be enhanced by adding oil.
We should not be afraid of fat in our diet. Fats from wild animals and fish, nuts and seeds eaten in moderate amounts, provide a good source of energy and the right balance of building materials for healthy cells and nerves.
Our Western diet is out of balance with too much saturated fat and too much grain-based polyunsaturated omega-6 fats found in modern processed vegetable oils and our grain-fed cattle which contribute to inflammation.
Less saturated fat and more monounsaturated and omega-3 fats from green plants, grass-fed animals and wild caught fish can help restore the dietary balance of fats to which we are genetically adapted, thus reducing inflammation.
Complex carbohydrates are needed for fiber and the maintenance of stable blood-glucose and insulin levels. However, our Western diet is overloaded with refined grains, starches and sugars. These foods are digested and absorbed rapidly causing blood sugar and insulin levels to rise quickly. These rapid elevations in sugar and insulin lead to almost as rapid a decline in sugar and insulin in the blood, leading to chronically unstable blood sugar levels and disease processes such as diabetes.
The wild green plants (a good source of healthy omega-3 fats) and the various fruits and non-starchy vegetables cause only a limited rise in blood sugar while providing needed fiber for intestinal health. The carbohydrate content of fruits and vegetables is low compared to cereal grains, and contain far more vitamins and minerals.
Cereal grains contain natural chemical substances called “phytates” that can inhibit the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Unless grains are properly prepared by soaking, sprouting or fermenting to neutralize the phytates and other toxins, these substances can contribute to nutrient deficiencies. Many native people used soaking and fermenting as food preservation techniques and they benefited from the enhanced nutritional properties that resulted since the proteins, vitamins and minerals could be absorbed more easily from these foods. Today’s refined cereal grain foods are fortified with minerals and synthetic vitamins in part to off-set the anti-nutrient effects of “phytates” and other such substances.
High quality plant and animal protein are needed for enzymes, muscles and other body tissue. Protein is essential for our body to build muscle and other tissues. Protein also satisfies hunger more than fat and carbohydrates. However, too much protein can lead to an excess of nitrogen in the body and make us ill, and should be eaten with complex carbohydrates from fresh fruits and vegetables and with moderate well-balanced amounts of fats and oils.
Protein does not interfere with blood-sugar and insulin levels. It also helps with weight loss since it stimulates our metabolism more than fats or carbohydrates.
An abundance of essential vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to act as antioxidants and enzyme system catalysts are critical. Essential phyto chemicals such as carotenoids, bioflavonoids and polyphenols are found in the skins and pulp of berries and other colorful plant foods. Their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are vital for good vision and eye health.
An ideal diet contains a variety of free-range protein (including fish, poultry and beef) making up, on average, about half of their food energy. Various wild plants provide the remaining half of their food calories.
The dietary fat intake should range from 30 to 60 percent of the total calories with a moderate amount of fat calories from polyunsaturated fatty acids found naturally in meats, fish, nuts, seeds and other plants. The balance of fat calories should come from high amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids and moderate amounts of saturated fatty acids. Our diet should contain a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids of about 4 to 1. (Our Western dietary ratio is estimated to be nearly 20 to 1.) While we talk about the “perfect” diet, there really is no “universal” diet that is right for everyone. Genetic testing is coming a long way in determining what the best options are for the optimum diet, but those on the planet who live the longest do tell us something about the way to a longer, healthier life.