Popeye, the cartoon character with a yen for spinach, ate that dark-green leafy vegetable whenever he wanted to increase his strength. Real-life scientists know that spinach -- along with a number of other fruits and vegetables -- is a rich source of lutein. And while it may not make you a strongman (or woman), lutein has many health benefits, particularly for your eyes.
Lutein (pronounced LOO-teen) is a carotenoid (a yellow to red pigment-producing compound) that acts as an antioxidant. Found in vegetables and fruits, antioxidants guard your cells against the damaging effects of free radicals. And while all antioxidants help maintain cells and tissues for overall good health, lutein is especially important for eye health.
Lutein accumulates in the eye in the macular region of the retina, where it acts as internal sunglasses, preserving eye integrity by filtering out the sun’s ultraviolet rays. If the macula becomes damaged by oxidation, often caused by years of exposure to sunlight, it can result in a condition known as macular degeneration, a leading cause of irreversible blindness in the elderly. According to the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health, studies suggest a link between lutein and decreased risk of eye disease.
Adults who eat lutein-rich foods -- at least 6 mg of lutein per day -- have a significantly reduced risk (as much as 43 percent) of developing macular degeneration. That’s because in addition to guarding against free-radical damage, lutein helps build macular pigment density, which is related to clarity of the lens of the eye. Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine and Ophthalmology note that lutein can play an important role in reducing formation of cataracts, which also result from oxidation of the eye’s lens.
But lutein is not just for the elderly. Most eye disease develops over a number of years, so by the time seniors are diagnosed with AMD or cataracts, the disease may have been developing for 20 years or more. Additionally, lutein may help reduce glare and prevent eye fatigue in persons whose jobs are performed primarily in bright sunlight, such as lifeguards, airline pilots or truck drivers. Those who work in front of a computer screen also will benefit from lutein.
As another health perk, researchers are looking at lutein’s role in reducing risk of certain types of cancer, noting that consumption of lutein-rich foods may help prevent the development of the disease process in those with no history of the disease. And lutein may play an important role in reducing risk of heart disease because of its ability to fight free radicals.
So how can you get this carotenoid antioxidant? The highest concentration of lutein is found in spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens and other leafy green vegetables; broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and in some fruits, such as oranges and cantaloupe. Lutein also is present in egg yolk.
Unfortunately, many people don’t eat enough of these foods to get an adequate amount of lutein. If collard greens and kale aren’t on your daily menu, or if you’re unlikely to dig in to a large spinach salad or an egg-yolk omelet every day, it’s a good idea to take a nutritional supplement that contains lutein.
NOTE: The information in this article is not meant to take the place of professional medical advice. Check with your doctor before making decisions on any vision care supplement.