Can your diet have an effect on cataracts?

Some of my patients ask me whether there are any lifestyle modifications they can make that could reduce their chance of getting cataracts. I have mentioned that stopping smoking and more exercise has some benefits but one patient yesterday asked me specifically about diet.

Having looking at some published studies on this subject in the past, I thought I would share with you one particularly interesting one.

One of the largest studies on this subject was published in the American Journal of Nutrition four years ago and surveyed the dietary habits of 27,670 non-diabetic people over the age 40 in the Oxford area in the United Kingdom. Their dietary habits were classified as heavy meat eaters (those who ate more than 100g meat daily), moderate meat eaters, low meat eaters, fish only eaters, vegetarians and vegans.

Interestingly the study found that the people with the highest risk of developing cataracts were the heavy meat eaters and the people with the lowest risk were the vegans. In fact the vegans were found to have a 40% lower risk of developing cataracts compared to the heavy meat eaters.

So what does this mean? Why does eating high amounts of meat lead to a higher risk of cataract formation? The short answer is no one really knows why. I suppose one theory could be that meat eaters eat less vegetables and it is known that vegetables contain vitamins and nutrients that are beneficial to eye health.

It also could be the case that vegetarians and vegans tend to live a healthier life and that lifestyle might be more related to not developing cataracts.

Should you stop eating meat to delay cataracts? My answer would be no, as the evidence to do this is still too weak in my opinion.

I think common sense tells us to try and have a healthier balance of meat and vegetables – after all it has other proven health benefits and it might possibly delay the onset of cataracts. If it doesn’t don’t worry – there is always the option of private cataract surgery in London with great success rates.

Appleby PN, Allen NE, Key TJ. Diet, vegetarianism, and cataract risk. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May;93(5):1128-35