Save Your Sight with Lutein

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LUTEIN IS A YELLOW PLANT PIGMENT IN the carotenoid family. Yellow and orange vegetables have only trace amounts of lutein; large amounts are found in green vegetables like broccoli, collard greens, kale, and spinach. Lutein is also available as a supplement made from marigold flowers.
How It Works

Your body uses lutein to make macular pigment (MP) in your retina, and this substance protects your eyes from the sun's harmful blue light rays, which can damage your retina and lead to AMD. MP shields your eyes like a pair of sunglasses, explains Richard Bone, Ph.D., a lutein researcher at Florida International University in Miami. Lutein, an antioxidant, also fights the free radicals that contribute to eye damage.
Evidence

Several large-scale observational human studies have found a correlation between a lutein-rich diet and healthy eyes. Placebo-controlled studies on lutein have not been done, and researchers have not yet tested lutein supplements in the lab.

One eight-year observational study of 36,644 men published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999 found that those men who consumed lutein-rich foods more than twice a week had 19 percent fewer cataract surgeries than those who ate fewer lutein-rich foods. A smaller study in Ophthalmology last October reported similar results.

Another observational study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994, analyzed the dietary intake of carotenoids (including lutein) for 356 people with advanced AMD and 520 people without AMD. More of the participants who didn't have AMD consumed more daily servings (six or more) of carotenoid-rich foods (especially spinach or collard greens) than participants who had advanced AMD.

Additional observational human studies on the effect of lutein on AMD are underway.
How to Take It

The government hasn't set a recommended daily intake for lutein. But nutrition experts like Lisa Holk, N.D., a naturopath and professor at the Chicago branch of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, say that consuming 6 to 12 mg daily can help prevent cataracts and AMD. You can easily consume this amount and more from foods. For example, 1 cup of cooked kale contains 22 mg of lutein and 1 cup of cooked collard greens gives you 16 mg. Holk suggests you get most of your lutein from food. But if you can't, take 6 to 12 mg of lutein supplements a day. Because lutein is fat-soluble, consume it with a meal rich in healthy oils, like olive oil, to enhance its absorption.
Caveats

Lutein is safe. Medications or supplements that decrease fat absorption (like Orlistat or chitosan) may reduce your body's ability to use lutein. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor before taking lutein supplements, and avoid them if you're allergic to marigolds.
Health Claims

Proponents say lutein staves off cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
The Bottom Line

Research on diets high in lutein suggests that it protects your eyes. Placebo-controlled clinical trials are still needed to verify that lutein deserves the credit, because luteinrich foods also contain other disease-fighting nutrients. Studies on lutein supplements are required to confirm that they work.

PHOTO (COLOR): Just ½ cup of cooked spinach a day could save your eyes.

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By Libby Ellis, Libby Ellis is a freelance writer in Boston.

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