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Heart-healthy diet may lower risk of macular degeneration

If you’ve adopted a heart-friendly diet, you also may be doing your eyes a favor and lowering your risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). That’s according to a study published last July in the American Journal of Ophthalmology, which examined the relationship between major American dietary patterns and AMD. 

“These new study results match up with the American Heart Association’s latest guidelines for heart disease prevention, which aim to lower LDL blood cholesterol and blood pressure,” says Sonja Connor, MS, RDN, LD, associate professor at OHSU and president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). Connor, a leading expert on the role of diet and coronary disease prevention, discussed the research findings during her keynote talk at the Macular Degeneration and Low Vision Expo last September.

In the study, investigators from Tufts University and other research centers examined the eating habits of more than 4,000 participants in the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), a major clinical trial evaluating the effect of high doses of antioxidants and zinc on the progression of AMD. After collecting information about their food consumption, the researchers ranked participants according to how closely they lined up to one of two major dietary patterns. The first, which Connor called Dietary Pattern One, is associated with the traditional Western diet and is characterized by higher consumption of red meat, processed meat, high-fat dairy products, refined grains and eggs. The second, which she referred to as Dietary Pattern Two, emphasizes fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, tomatoes and seafood. 

The researchers concluded that sticking to a Western diet markedly increases your chances of early or advanced AMD, while the second dietary pattern is strongly associated with lower odds for early or advanced AMD, noted Connor.

Although medical science has yet to identify specific nutrients that protect against AMD, the study’s authors believe it is the complex interaction among the foods we eat that have an overall effect on our health and eye health. “The great news is that the second eating pattern identified by the researchers also helps with other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease,” said Connor.  It is comparable, she said, to such heart-healthy diets as the Mediterranean Diet and DASH Eating Plan.

If switching to a healthier diet seems daunting, Connor suggests changing your eating habits gradually. Begin by avoiding foods high in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats and substituting whole eggs with egg whites, skim for whole milk and vegetable oils for lard. “Try to eat more fish – science shows it’s good for our bodies,” she said.

In the next phase, try to eat meat only once a day, use less fat and cheese and eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Be on the lookout for appealing new recipes that emphasize these ingredients. “I don’t expect everyone to like every high-fat recipe, so I don’t expect you to like every low-fat one either,” she told the audience. “Once you find a recipe you like, incorporate it into everyday eating,” she said, adding that many newsletters, magazines and cookbooks offer a wealth of ideas and inspiration.

In the final phase, think of meat as a condiment, as many other cultures do. Add a modest amount to stir-fries, pasta dishes or salads. Use only low-fat cheeses and decrease the amount of salt in your cooking. Regular cheese, a juicy steak, chocolate and salty foods don’t have to go by the wayside – just reserve them for special occasions, she said. “If you focus on eating the things that are protective against AMD, you will just naturally eat less of the other, less healthy foods.”

Resources for diet planning

DASH Eating Plan
AHA Diet & Lifestyle Recs
USDA Food Patterns

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