Red Meat Raises Your Risk of Vision Loss

Study finds that eating red meat 10 or more times per week may increase your risk of age-related blindness.

March 24, 2009

Now you see it: Too much meat now could mean eye problems later.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of severe vision loss in people age 50 or older. The condition, which results in vision loss in the center of the visual field (the macula), counts age, family history, and smoking among its risk factors. The latter was the only known risk factor you could actually eliminate on your own—until now. An Australian study even found that people who eat an abundance of red meat—particularly sausage—may be predisposed to develop AMD.

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Researchers from the Centre for Eye Research Australia in Melbourne examined the diets and eye health of 5,604 men and women who’d participated in a large health study 10 years earlier. They found that the people who reported eating red meat more than 10 times per week had a 50 percent higher risk of macular degeneration than those who ate meat 4 times or fewer per week. Also, people who ate lots of salami or sausage were strongly predisposed to AMD. Chicken intake, on the other hand, displayed no association with early (just started) macular degeneration, but actually appeared to be protective when it came to a late form of the condition.

If you’re a meat lover, don’t worry, nobody's calling for you to banish all beef from your plate. Especially since the study, the first of its kind, needs what the authors call "confirmatory data from other studies." However, this is one more reason to eat a varied diet, swapping out some red-meat-based meals for more servings of poultry and vegetables, says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo PhD, RD, a nutrition counselor in Roseville, CA, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “More study is needed to quantify the risk,” she says. “Multiple studies have shown that a diet rich in several nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein, zeaxanthin, selenium, and zinc, can help maintain healthy eyesight.” As for red meat, it will take more studies to clarify how it affects eye health.

It's important to note, through, that some previous red meat health studies link eating less red meat to longer lifespans.

On the one hand, red meat is an excellent source of zinc, a nutrient very important for eye health. Still, red meat, and smoked red meat in particular, contains chemical compounds called nitrosamines, which the study authors speculate may be behind the link between red meat and AMD.

Here’s how you can eat for optimal eye health:

• Mix up your menus. “Last June, the same researcher found that fish eaten twice per week was associated with a 24 to 33 percent reduction in early and late AMD,” points out Dr. Gazzaniga-Moloo. “This study provides even more support for a varied diet, with a healthy mix of plant-based foods rich in antioxidants, as well as mixing up your protein choices to include fish, poultry, and red meat in moderation.” The Rodale Recipe Finder can help you plan healthy meals with or without red meat.

• Look beyond carrots. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), the orange guys are great for eyes because they pack the nutrient beta-carotene, which is essential for night vision, but spinach and other dark, leafy greens are the healthiest foods for eyes overall. Here are the nutrients the AOA says are key for eye health, and where to find them:

1. Lutein and zeaxanthin—found in colorful fruits and veggies such as broccoli, spinach, corn, green beans, peas, oranges, and tangerines.
2. Essential fatty acids—found in fatty fish like tuna, salmon, or herring; whole grain foods; chicken and eggs.
3. Vitamin C—found in fruits and vegetables, including oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, papaya, green peppers, and tomatoes.
4. Vitamin E—found in vegetable oils, such as safflower or corn oil; almonds, pecans, sweet potatoes, and sunflower seeds.
5. Zinc—found in extra-lean red meat, poultry, liver, shellfish, milk, baked beans, and whole grains.