Lutein: More Than Meets the Eye
Photo by Getty Images/Sjale
If you’ve ever picked up a bottle of vitamins for eye health, you may have noticed lutein listed on the label. Lutein is a yellow plant pigment classified as a carotenoid. Unlike beta-carotene, a well-known carotenoid, your body can’t convert lutein to vitamin A, an essential eye nutrient. However, lutein supports your vision in other ways.
Lutein is a powerful antioxidant and helps protect your eyes against oxidative stress caused by light exposure. “When you consume lutein, it’s transported to your eyes where it acts as an internal pair of sunglasses, protecting them from ultraviolet and blue light, originating from sources such as sunlight, digital devices, and energy-efficient light bulbs,” says Sandra Young, OD, author of Visionary Kitchen: A Cookbook for Eye Health.
That protection may help reduce the risk of certain eye diseases, as well as support the function of healthy eyes. Here’s a closer look at how lutein benefits eye health and how you can incorporate more of it into your diet.
At a Glance: Lutein in Eye Health
During an eye exam, the doctor shines a light in your eyes to see the retina, which lines the back of the eyeball. The retina converts light into impulses that travel to your brain, where they’re perceived as images. In the center of the retina is the macula, which has a yellow optical layer over it. That color comes from lutein and a closely related compound, zeaxanthin.
“The thicker that yellow optical layer over the macula — which is influenced by how much lutein and zeaxanthin you consume — the more protective it is for your eyes and the less your risk for certain eye health issues,” Young says. This yellow layer enhances the sharpness of your vision, enabling you to see farther. It also improves contrast sensitivity, such as your ability to see a white golf ball against the blue sky. In addition, this yellow layer increases visual processing speed, which can improve your reaction times; reduces glare recovery time, such as from bright lights when you’re driving at night; and improves dark adaptation, such as when you first enter a movie theater.
Studies suggest lutein may help reduce the risk or slow the progression of potentially blinding eye diseases, particularly age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the loss of central vision needed for reading and recognizing faces. Lutein also may provide some protection against cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma, though more research is needed.
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8 Super Sources for Lutein
These foods are among the best natural sources of lutein. All household serving sizes listed are equal to 3.5 ounces (100 grams) to more easily compare food portions.
- Leafy greens: These contain significantly more lutein than other foods. For example, just 1/2 cup cooked spinach, or 3-1/2 cups raw, supplies 12.6 mg lutein — that’s as much or more than you’d get in a supplement. Similarly, 3/4 cup cooked kale has 8.9 mg lutein.
Other common lutein-rich greens include Swiss chard, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, and dandelion greens.
- Asparagus: A 1/2-cup serving of cooked asparagus (about six spears) has 0.991 mg lutein, or just under 1 mg. Try topping homemade pizza with steamed, cut asparagus spears, and add asparagus to omelets, casseroles, stir-fries, and pasta dishes.
- Colorful salad greens: Darker-colored salad greens are generally richer in nutrients. A 2-cup serving of shredded romaine lettuce has 3.8 mg lutein, while iceberg lettuce has only 0.171 mg. Top your salad with 1 cup each of cucumber (unpeeled) and orange bell pepper slices, which have 0.361 mg lutein and 0.208 mg, respectively.
- Broccoli: A scant 1-cup cooked serving of this commonly eaten vegetable has 0.772 mg lutein. In comparison, the same amount of corn, has 0.202 mg.
- Green Beans: This versatile vegetable offers 0.306 mg lutein in a 3/4-cup cooked serving. Enjoy steamed and topped with lemon-herb butter, tucked inside your favorite casserole, stir-fried with slivered almonds, roasted in the oven, tossed in a bean salad, or cooked outdoors in a grill basket.
- Zucchini: Unlike winter squash, zucchini has a thin skin you can easily eat, which is where some of the lutein resides. Just 1/2 cup cooked zucchini with the skin has 1.3 mg lutein. In contrast, 1/2 cup cooked yellow squash with the skin has just 0.150 mg lutein, and 1/2 cup cooked (and peeled) butternut squash has only 0.057 mg lutein.
- Pistachios: Though nuts aren’t typically a good source of lutein, a scant 1-cup portion of shelled pistachios has 1.4 mg — accompanied by a high mark of 578 calories. Though a typical serving is only 1/4 cup, that still provides 0.350 mg of lutein and a more figure-friendly 170 calories.
- Eggs: A serving of two large cooked eggs supplies 0.237 mg of lutein, particularly in the yolks. Importantly, the lutein they contain is absorbed about three times better than from a vegetable source, which is thought to be due to the fat in the egg.
Lutein in Your Diet
You have to consume lutein from outside sources because your body can’t make it on its own. The average American consumes 1 to 2 milligrams (mg) lutein daily, but you may need to consume at least 6 mg daily to reduce risk of AMD. To help slow AMD if you already have it, at least 10 mg lutein daily is advised.
Lutein is naturally found in several foods, particularly many green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, as well as some yellow and orange vegetables, such as corn and orange peppers.
How you prepare foods can affect how much lutein you absorb. “Lutein is a fat-soluble nutrient, so you’ll absorb more lutein if you include a little fat with it,” Young says. “For example, add walnuts or dressing to your salad to absorb more lutein from the lettuce.” She also notes that cooking or grinding foods, such as in a high-speed food processor, helps break down cell walls, making lutein more readily digestible.
It’s best to get your lutein from whole, nutritious foods because they provide many other nutrients that support eye health. However, if you have special eye concerns and want to ensure a consistent intake or have dietary restrictions that limit your lutein intake, a supplement can be a good option.
An extract of marigold flowers is typically the source of lutein in supplements. Look for ones that contain at least 10 mg lutein and 2 mg zeaxanthin per daily dose. These are the amounts that were tested and shown effective for helping slow the progression of intermediate-stage age-related macular degeneration in the Age-Related Eye Disease Studies (AREDS) by the National Eye Institute.
Some lutein supplements contain only lutein and zeaxanthin, while others also contain other antioxidant nutrients shown to support eye health, such as vitamins C and E, and zinc. You can also buy multivitamins specially formulated to include lutein and other eye-supportive nutrients. Below are a few examples of quality brands made without unnecessary additives and artificial ingredients:
For further guidance, consult your eye doctor.
Whether your eyes are currently healthy or you’re concerned about eye diseases, take a closer look at the foods you regularly eat and make sure lutein-rich foods are among them. Your eyes will thank you.
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Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD, is a freelance writer with a special interest in integrative and functional medicine. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaMcCulloch.
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