By Erinn Hutking, Special to U-T San Diego, Posted March 24 2015
Eating more vegetables and less red meat may lessen the odds of developing age-related cataracts, according to a recent study conducted at Oxford University.
As part of a study survey that followed a large group of people for more than a decade, researchers discovered a link between red meat intake and cataracts.
According to the results, those over age 65 who followed a vegetarian diet had the lowest risk, while those who ate the largest amounts of red meat were at the highest risk.
“It’s generally accepted that if you live long enough, you’ll develop a cataract,” said Dr. Sandy T. Feldman, a San Diego-based physician at ClearView Eye & Laser Medical Center. “Cataract surgery is the most commonly performed operation in the U.S.”
Cataracts are a gradual clouding of the lens of the eye that can impair vision. Roughly 60 percent of adults between the ages 65 and 74 develop cataracts, while about 90 percent of people age 75 and older experience cataracts.
Over 20 million Americans are believed to have a cataract in at least one eye.
However, the Oxford study doesn’t assert that eating meat leads directly to cataracts, but rather that there is a link.
“A vegetarian diet may simply be part of a healthy lifestyle that contributes to lower risk of cataracts,” Feldman said. “There may be other factors at work, such as smoking, diabetes and exposure to bright sunlight.”
Findings of the study were based on 27,600 adults older than 40 who filled out dietary surveys over a 6-year period. Their medical records were examined later to look for people who developed cataracts.
The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed a decrease in daily red meat intake also lowers the risk for developing cataracts: those with mid-range meat consumption (1.7 to 3.4 ounces daily) had a 4 percent decrease; those with low-meat consumption (less than 1.7 ounces daily) showed a 15 percent decrease.
On the other hand, fish eaters had a 21 percent decrease in cataracts, while vegetarians and vegans had a 30 percent and 40 percent decrease, respectively.
Feldman said that while researchers do not know yet exactly why eating less red meat may lower the risk for developing cataracts, other studies have shown that a plant-based diet contributes to overall good health.
For instance, a National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people showed that people who ate the most red meat were 30 percent more likely to die during a 10-year period vs. people who ate the least amount of meat.
Those who ate poultry and fish had a lower risk of death vs. meat eaters. People who ate a lot of sausage, lunch meat and other processed meats increased their risk of death.
“People that eat a plant-based diet generally eat fewer calories, less fat, weigh less and have a lower risk of heart disease than do those who eat a lot of meat,” Feldman said.
Age-related cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. In addition to diet, there are many risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, excessive sunlight exposure, obesity, high blood pressure, previous eye injury or inflammation, and medications such as steroids.
Feldman said when cataracts begin to disrupt activities such as nighttime driving, reading or golf, surgical treatment is used, often with lasers because the treatment is more precise and gentler. She said the study is further proof as to how diet can impact the body.
“Food is our medicine, and not only contributes to our eyes as well as overall health in a negative way but also in a positive way,” she said. “We can influence what diseases we get by modifying our lifestyles.”