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Mom was right: Eating carrots and colorful veggies really can improve your eyesight

Top athletes know that nutrition, which includes eating carrots, is a critical component of their training regimen. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia is now suggesting that a diet supplemented with an array of colorful fruits and vegetables could enhance an athlete’s visual range, a key advantage in competitive sports.

This compelling research was published in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. The study takes a deep dive into the benefits of certain plant compounds known as macular pigments. These pigments accumulate in the retina, playing a significant role in promoting eye health and improving functional vision.

How carrots and colorful fruits improve vision

The dynamic duo behind many previous studies on this topic, UGA researchers Billy R. Hammond and Lisa Renzi-Hammond, discovered that foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, such as dark leafy greens, yellow and orange vegetables such as carrots, boost eye and brain health. These plant compounds are the primary constituents of the macular pigments under investigation.

Jack Harth, lead author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at UGA’s College of Public Health, noted, “A lot of the research into macular lutein and zeaxanthin has focused on health benefits. But from a functional perspective, higher concentrations of these plant pigments improve many aspects of visual and cognitive ability. In this paper, we discuss their ability to improve vision in the far distance or visual range.”

The visual range, essentially the clarity with which one can see a target over distance, is indispensable for elite athletes across most sports. This ability can be compromised as objects become harder to see and seem fuzzier when viewed from a distance, primarily due to the effects of blue light.

Harth explains this phenomenon by using the example of a center fielder in baseball: “If that ball’s coming up in the air, it will be seen against a background of bright blue sky, or against a gray background if it’s a cloudy day. Either way, the target is obscured by atmospheric interference coming into that path of the light.”

Focus on nutrition and ditch the sunglasses

It’s common for athletes to attempt to mitigate the impact of blue light through tools such as eye black or blue blocker sunglasses. Yet, an increase in lutein and zeaxanthin intake could naturally enhance the eye’s ability to cope with blue light exposure.

These compounds in carrots and other fruits and vegetables, when consumed, accumulate as yellow pigments in the retina and serve as a filter, preventing blue light from penetrating the eye. This theory is not new; research in the 1980s investigated the visual range ability of pilots and drew similar conclusions.

Recent studies led by Hammond and Renzi-Hammond have delved into how macular pigment density, or the level of yellow pigment buildup in the retina, correlates with numerous measures of eye health and functional vision tests.

“In a long series of studies, we have shown that increasing amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin in the retina and brain decrease glare disability and discomfort and improve chromatic contrast and visual-motor reaction time. Supplementing these compounds also facilitates executive functions like problem-solving and memory. All of these tasks are particularly important for athletes,” explains Billy R. Hammond.

The current paper brings the latest research on macular pigment and functional vision into focus. It questions what the evidence implies about enhancing athletic performance.

Harth added, “We’re at a point where we can say we’ve seen visual range differences in pilots that match the differences found in modeling. We’ve also seen it in laboratory tests. A future goal would be to bring people outside and measure their ability to see contrast over distance through real blue haze and in outdoor environments.”

Not all people achieve the same results

However, Harth warns that individual responses may vary due to differences in how our bodies absorb and utilize lutein and zeaxanthin. It’s not as simple as just starting to eat kale and immediately observing improvements in your game. 

Individual biological variations mean that lutein and zeaxanthin absorption and usage may differ from person to person. Furthermore, it might take some time before any changes, if any, become noticeable.

Despite these variables, the research team insists that there’s more than enough evidence to support the general health benefits of consuming more lutein and zeaxanthin. There’s no harm in bringing more color to your diet with fruits and vegetables rich in these compounds, such as carrots and spinach.

“We have data from modeling and empirical studies showing that higher macular pigment in your retina will improve your ability to see over distance. The application for athletes is clear,” says Harth. 

The research into this field is ongoing, and while it’s not a guarantee that these pigments will transform every person into a superior athlete, it’s an exciting development in understanding how diet can impact not only health, but potentially performance as well. Athletes and non-athletes alike can all benefit from the added incentive to load up their plates with more colorful fruits and vegetables.

More about carrots and vision

Carrots are perhaps best known for their association with good eye health, and this reputation isn’t undeserved. They are packed with beta-carotene, a type of carotenoid which gives carrots their vibrant orange color. Once consumed, beta-carotene gets converted in the body into vitamin A, an essential nutrient known for its critical role in maintaining and improving eye health.

Vitamin A is a key ingredient of a protein called rhodopsin, which the retina needs to absorb light. A deficiency in this vitamin can lead to several eye-related health problems. 

The most severe is xerophthalmia, a condition that can result in night blindness – difficulty seeing in low light or darkness – and, in extreme cases, may cause the cornea to become dry and damaged, which can lead to blindness.

That said, while carrots contribute to overall eye health due to their vitamin A content, they’re not a cure-all for vision problems. The belief that eating a lot of carrots will allow one to see in complete darkness is a myth, albeit a persistent one. 

This notion likely originated during World War II when the British spread rumors that their pilots had exceptional night vision because they ate lots of carrots. In reality, the Royal Air Force’s improved hit rate was due to advances in radar technology, but attributing it to carrot consumption was a convenient cover story.

While the conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A does support eye health, it’s also worth noting that other fruits and vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens, also contain important nutrients for eye health. 

For example, lutein and zeaxanthin, as mentioned in the press release you provided, are two such nutrients. They are found in high quantities in leafy greens like spinach and kale, and also in yellow and orange vegetables, including, to a lesser extent, carrots.

These nutrients, lutein and zeaxanthin, are concentrated in the macula, a part of the retina, where they protect the eye from harmful blue light, improve visual acuity, and may even help prevent age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in older adults.

So, while carrots do support eye health due to their high vitamin A content, a balanced diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables can provide a more comprehensive range of nutrients for optimal eye health.


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