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6 Best Nutrients for Eye Health

Find out which vitamins are essential for protecting vision


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David Sheppard, 58, owner of a website in Baldwin Park, California, spends a lot of time online. But four years ago, he noticed that his eyes were red and irritated, and he had a hard time seeing after just a short time on his computer. His vision issues turned out to be due to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It happens when aging damages the macula — the part of the retina that controls the direct line of sight — causing blurring and the eventual loss of central vision.

Sheppard’s doctor prescribed him a cocktail of specific vitamins shown to slow the progression of AMD. “Within a month or so I started to feel the difference,” he says. “I’ve learned that it’s very important to keep up with eye health, especially at my age and line of work.” 

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Not everyone over 50 needs to take a supplement to preserve their vision. But some nutrients seem to be essential for healthy eyes.  

The superstars of eye nutrition are disease-fighting antioxidants like vitamins C and E, which reduce damaging oxidation and protect the eyes from conditions like AMD and glaucoma. “Whether it’s UV light from the sun, smoking or exposures in our diets, our cells are undergoing oxidative stress,” says Michelle Andreoli, M.D., an ophthalmologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

“Plant pigments like beta carotene and lutein are also thought to be important,” says Elizabeth Johnson, adjunct associate professor at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

To keep your vision keen, Andreoli suggests filling your plate with dark-colored fruits and vegetables — "the spinaches, kales and blackberries of the world,” she says. “Eat things that crunch — and the darker they are, the better they are for you.” 

Here are the six top vitamins that promote eye health and the best ways to get them. Because many vitamins and supplements can interact with prescription drugs, make sure you check with your doctor before starting any new ones.

1. Vitamin A (and beta carotene)

Vitamin A is absolutely essential for vision, Johnson says. A deficiency can cause night blindness, particularly among older individuals, and if it progresses, permanent blindness can result. Beta carotene is thought to be important because it’s a precursor of vitamin A.

Luckily, deficiencies are rare in the United States, likely because many processed foods like breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins. “It’s quite difficult to not get enough vitamin A in our diet,” says Andreoli.

Liver and dairy products such as milk are great natural sources of vitamin A. To get beta carotene (which gets converted into vitamin A in the body), look for any orange vegetable, such as carrots, winter squash or sweet potatoes.

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2. Vitamin E

Vitamin E is also essential for eye health. “You find it in the eye, which adds biological plausibility for it being important,” Johnson says.

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Doctors prescribe vitamins for age-related macular degeneration.
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Like other antioxidants, vitamin E helps prevent damage from free radicals and eye disease. It’s one of the components — along with vitamin C, copper, zinc, lutein and zeaxanthin — of the high-dose antioxidant supplement called AREDS2 (developed from the Age-Related Eye Diseases [AREDS] studies), which Sheppard took to keep his AMD from getting worse.

There’s some evidence that high levels of vitamin E in the diet may protect against the formation of age-related vision-clouding cataracts — but the research shows no significant benefit from taking a supplement. So be sure to give plant-based oils, nuts, sunflower seeds and avocado a place on the menu.

3. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is another disease-fighting antioxidant that protects against AMD, and as with vitamin E, you probably don’t need to take a supplement to get benefits. You’ll get an added bonus if you’re also eating vitamin E-rich foods. “The two vitamins protect each other from being used up or oxidized,” Johnson says. “So you like to see a pairing of vitamins C and E.”

And there are other pluses. In a 2016 study looking at diet and the risk of cataract progression, researchers found a diet rich in foods with vitamins C could cut risk of cataract progression by a third. Citrus fruits are the classic choices for vitamin C, Andreoli says. But kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, kale and bell pepper also are abundant sources. Give the eye-healthy combo a try with a spinach and strawberry salad with an olive oil and vinegar dressing and sunflower seeds. The spinach and strawberries have vitamin C — along with a number of other healthy nutrients — and the olive oil and sunflower seeds contain vitamin E.

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4. Zinc

Zinc is a part of many enzymes that are needed for good vision and the integrity of eye tissue, Johnson says. It’s part of the AREDS2 formulation for controlling AMD and should be part of a general eye-healthy diet. You can find it in beans, lentils, seeds, meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products.

5. Lutein and zeaxanthin

These nutrients, part of the carotenoid family of plant pigments, are found naturally in eye tissue. “They’re both in the lens and macula, which is at the dead center of your retina,” Johnson says. “The macula gets a direct hit from light, and thus is vulnerable.” Lutein and zeaxanthin act like sunglasses, protecting the retina from UV damage. That makes them particularly important to the prevention of AMD.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are often found together in foods. They’re abundant in berries, broccoli, papaya, peaches, mangoes, and leafy greens like Swiss chard and spinach.

6. Omega-3 fatty acids

The healthful fats in fish may be as helpful for your eyes as they are for your heart. Research suggests that consuming omega-3 fatty acids in foods or as a supplement may alleviate dry eye disease, when the eye doesn’t make enough tears to lubricate it, Andreoli says. That leads to symptoms like burning, stinging and a gritty sensation. Some studies also show that people who get higher amounts of omega-3s from foods may have a lower risk of developing AMD.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines are top sources of these healthy fats. Plant sources include flaxseed, walnuts and chia seeds, and flaxseed, soybean and canola oils.

Flaxseed oil did the trick for Santa Barbara, California, resident Barry Maher, 66, who started taking it after developing dry eye in his 40s. “The dry eye started getting better almost immediately and soon vanished altogether,” he says. “Since then, virtually the only time I’ve had a problem with dry eye was when I stopped taking it.” 

Video: How to Protect Your Eyesight

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