This article appears in Winter Health Living 2020

We may have learned as children to eat carrots for better eyesight, but as we age it may be what we don’t eat that benefits our vision.

People with a diet high in red and processed meat, fried foods, refined grains and high-fat dairy were three times more likely to develop age-related macular degeneration, an eye condition that damages the retina and affects a person’s central vision, according to a new study from the University at Buffalo.

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in the United States and affects about 11 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is expected to double by 2050.

The risk of developing this type of vision loss, which causes blurred straight-ahead vision in the part of the eye called the macula, increases with age and most commonly affects older white Americans.

Commonly called AMD, it affects more than 14 percent of white Americans 80 and older.

“Latinos and Asians have comparable risk to Caucasians with some differences in risk for certain forms of late AMD,” said study senior author Amy Millen, associate professor and associate chair of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo. “Individuals who smoke are at increased risk for AMD as well as individuals with certain genetic risk factors.”

What many people might not know is that diet affects vision.

“I think that most people understand that diet influences cardiovascular disease risk and risk for obesity; however I’m not sure the public thinks about whether or not diet influences one’s risk for vision loss later in life,” Millen said. “Central vision is what you need to read, to drive or any other act that involves the use of seeing straight in front of you — so pretty much everything.”

For more than three decades experts have observed that some foods and nutrients are associated with risk for age-related macular degeneration. Clinical trials have shown that high-dose antioxidants slow progression of early to late-stage AMD.

“However, less research has examined dietary patterns rather than single nutrients or foods, in relation to age-related macular degeneration,” Millen said. This U.S.-based study is one of the first examining diet patterns and development of age-related macular degeneration over time. Previous studies were conducted in Europe.

Early age-related macular degeneration is asymptomatic, meaning that people often don’t know that they have it, Millen said. To catch it, a physician would have to review a photo of the person’s retina, looking for pigmentary changes and development of yellow deposits made up of lipids.

In addition to avoiding red and processed meat, fried foods, refined grains and high-fat dairy, people who are at risk for or who have early age-related macular degeneration could benefit from eating dark leafy greens, such as spinach, and eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines and mackerel, Millen said.