Cataracts are defined as an opacity or cloudiness of the lens in the eye, which decreases vision over time as it progresses. We often think of cataracts as a symptom of age, but we can take an active role in preventing them.
There are enumerable modifiable risk factors including diet; smoking; sunlight exposure; chronic diseases, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome; steroid use; and physical inactivity. Here. I will discuss the dietary factor.
In a prospective study, diet was shown to have substantial effect on cataract risk reduction.
This study was the United Kingdom group, with 27,670 participants, of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) trial. Participants completed food frequency questionnaires between 1993 and 1999. Then, they were checked for cataracts between 2008 and 2009.
There was an inverse relationship between the amount of meat consumed and cataract risk. In other words, those who ate a great amount of meat were at higher risk of cataracts. “Meat” included red meat, fowl and pork. These results followed what is termed a dose-response curve.
Compared to high meat eaters, every other group demonstrated a significant risk reduction as you progressed along a spectrum that included low meat eaters (15 percent reduction), fish eaters (21 percent reduction), vegetarians (30 percent reduction) and finally vegans (40 percent reduction).
There really was not much difference between high meat eaters, those having at least 3.5 ounces, and low meat eaters, those having less than 1.7 ounces a day, yet there was a substantial decline in cataracts. Thus, you don’t have to become a vegan to see an effect.
In my clinical experience, I’ve also had several patients experience reversal of their cataracts after they transitioned to a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. I didn’t think this was possible, but anecdotally, this is a very positive outcome and was confirmed by their ophthalmologists.
Oxidative stress is a major contributor to the development of cataracts. In a review article that looked at 70 different trials for the development of cataracts and/or maculopathies, such as age-related macular degeneration, the authors concluded antioxidants, which are micronutrients found in foods, play an integral part in prevention.
The authors go on to say that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as lifestyle modification with smoking cessation and early obesity treatment, help to reduce the risk of cataracts. You are never too young or too old to take steps to prevent cataracts.
The only effective way to treat cataracts is with surgery; the most typical type is phacoemulsification. Ophthalmologists remove the opaque lens and replace it with a synthetic intraocular lens. Fortunately, there is a very high success rate for this surgery.
So why is it important to avoid cataracts if surgery can remedy them?
Potential consequences of surgery
There are always potential risks with invasive procedures, such as infection, even though the chances of complications are low. However, more importantly, there is a greater than fivefold risk of developing late-stage wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) after cataract surgery, which can cause significant vision loss.
These results come from a meta-analysis (group of studies) looking at more than 6,000 patients.
It has been hypothesized that the surgery may induce inflammatory changes and development of leaky blood vessels in the retina of the eye.
However, it is not clear whether undiagnosed AMD may have existed prior to the cataract surgery, since they have similar underlying causes related to oxidative stress.
Therefore, if you can reduce the risk of cataracts through diet and other lifestyle modifications, plus avoid the potential consequences of cataract surgery, all while reducing the risk of chronic diseases, why not choose the win-win-win scenario?