Mediterranean Diet a Sight for Sore Eyes

Written by Dr. David Evans   Last modified on August 6, 2018

The old saying is, you are what you eat. Over the last few years as I have noticed my metabolism has slowed, I have to be much more conscious of what I eat. A burger here, a beer there… it adds up. Personally I hate diets. I like salads as much as the next guy, but I’m not looking to completely upend my nutritional habits. (Ribeye with béarnaise anyone?) Fortunately, running is one of my favorite activities which gives me more leeway and helps me strike a balance. That said, being aware of, and controlling what we eat is a natural part of life, and for those out there that are on the lookout for a decent diet, I’ve got one I’d like to talk about: The Mediterranean Diet.

Mediterranean Diet

Why would an eye care professional want to talk to you about a diet? Because this one has been linked with macular degeneration prevention.

The Mediterranean diet is a “fad” diet popularized by the healthy eating habits of people from countries bordering the Mediterranean, where diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains dominate. It is primarily a heart-healthy diet packed with foods that help to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and prevent the development of arterial plaques. But it’s not solely a heart-healthy diet. It has also been linked with reduced instances of serious disease like cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. And more recently according to two European studies, it appears to stave off macular degeneration (AMD), which is a leading cause of blindness.

One of the studies analyzed 883 people over the age of 55, more than half of whom had early stage (dry) AMD but had not suffered any associated vision loss. Participants were given a questionnaire to determine how closely their diet fit with the Mediterranean diet and scored 0 to 9. (A score of 6 or more was considered to be “closely” adhering to the diet.) Based on this study, those closely adhering to the diet had a 35 percent reduced risk of AMD. That’s significant.

A particularly interesting finding associated with this study is that fruit and caffeine consumption appear to lower the risk of AMD. Caffeine is not necessarily considered to be part of the Mediterranean diet, though people from the region commonly drink significant amounts of coffee and tea. The results of the study — which was conducted by Dr. Rufino Silva, MD, PhD of the University of Coimbra — were reported during a recent meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).  (Incidentally, I had a chance to visit the University of Coimbra a number of years ago, it is a beautiful place. A little trivia… although the University is not well known outside of Portugal, it’s one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world.)

The second study was far broader, involving researchers from eight European countries and 4,753 randomly selected people over the age of 65. Like Dr. Silva’s study, participants completed a dietary questionnaire, in addition to receiving an eye exam and having a digital retinal color photograph taken. This study also found a correlation between a diet rich in Mediterranean-based foods and reduced incidence of AMD.

The reason this diet appears to be such a powerful deterrent for AMD is that it is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and a host of anti-inflammatory nutrients that support blood vessel health. Considering that the eye boasts the most intricate network of blood vessels in the body, it makes sense that such a diet would have significant eye health benefits.

Much of the research surrounding the Mediterranean diet has been focused on cardiovascular health, diabetes prevention and other general health conditions, but the potential impact for improved retinal health cannot be understated. This is especially important considering that AMD rates are expected to continue rising over the next several decades.

To learn more about the AMD benefits of the Mediterranean diet, check out this article from the American Academy of Ophthalmology: