Healthy vision is one of our fundamental five senses; it is the key to our perceptions, our ability to interpret the world, and to connect with it. Our eyesight engages us socially, enables us to non-verbally communicate, learn, understand others, care for ourselves and supports our independence. Optimal nutrition is essential for children whilst they are growing and developing, and research suggests that 20% of school-aged children have an undiagnosed vision problem. Children’s healthy vision supports their social development, achievement and ultimately reduces risk factors for adulthood. Understanding nutrients and lifestyle factors which can support the development and function of the visual system can be extremely helpful.
Essential Fatty Acids
Aside from being a key component for brain development and function, essential fats are also a major component of the retina. 20% of these fatty acids found in the retina are the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are important for both structure and function. Studies have linked low levels of fatty acids with numerous degenerative eye conditions including age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.
Focus on: Oily fish, such as sardines, salmon or herrings 2-3 times a week are recommended. Perhaps get children making mackerel or salmon pâté for snack time (see my website for a recipe) and if your child struggles to eat fish consider a supplement rich in EPA and DHA. It’s also valuable to avoid foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like margarine and baked goods as these can damage the beneficial omega-3 fats and increase inflammation in the body.
Vitamins A and E
Vitamin A is vital for vision and ensures the retina is working effectively. Retinol is the animal form of vitamin A, whilst beta-carotene is the vegetable form, which is converted into retinol in the liver. As this is a nutrient that can be stored in the body, over supplementation can be toxic therefore it’s advisable to focus on increasing food sources to boost levels. Vitamin E helps to protect the eye from oxidation damage and conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma.
Focus on: Vitamin A rich foods such as liver, milk, cheese, eggs, mackerel and chicken (see my website for a child-friendly liver pâté recipe). Increase vitamin E rich foods such as avocados, nuts, sweet potato, asparagus, seeds and spinach.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
These two carotenoids are found in high quantities in the eyes and protect the lens by supporting changes to light, enhancing visual range, reducing glare and reduce the risk of cataracts.
Focus on: Encouraging your child to consume more dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, eggs, fruit and corn.
The primary function of vitamin C in the body is the production of collagen, the main protein substance of the body and found in the cornea of the eye. Low levels have been linked to increased risk of cataracts.
Focus on: Colourful fruits and vegetables such as papaya, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, oranges, kiwifruit and melon.
This is an essential trace mineral important for growth and the body’s production of melanin, which protects pigment in the eye.
Focus on: Including zinc rich foods such as fish, seeds, nuts, and chicken.
Blood sugar balance
‘Normal’ eye movements are essential for focus and tasks such as writing and reading. Dyslexic children commonly have more erratic eye movements, which can impair their ability to focus and develop their language performance. Factors such as a high sugar diet and blood sugar imbalance can contribute to greater erratic eye movement.
Focus on: Avoiding sugary foods, swapping white refined carbohydrates for wholegrain options and ensuring meals and snacks include a good quality protein can help to slow down the release of sugar from foods and support eye health. Some snack examples include combining apple and cheese, rice cakes and cottage cheese and berries with yoghurt.
Other strategies, which support eye development and health include exposure to visual stimulus when children are little including mobiles, colourful toys and books. Ensuring children spend time outdoors regularly to play and exercise with studies suggesting 2 hours each day is optimal. Minimising exposure to screens including phones, tablets and TV and avoiding bright lights specifically in the early evening is also valuable and supports optimal sleep. Regular eye tests should also be planned.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years.
Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has also published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’.