Plant-based diet appears to boost eye health

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COLUMNIST'S NOTE: My thanks to the sharp-eyed reader who sent the following message: "Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, assigned to Peanuts comic strip is incorrect. 'We have met the enemy and he is us' originated with Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, and was on an Earth Day poster in 1970. According to Wikipedia the quote was used as a poster for the first Earth Day."

A few days ago my youngest son, who is the chief executive officer of an eye group -- ophthalmologists and optometrists -- in Medford alerted me to a recent article showing how diet affects the incidence of cataracts.

A study was done on 27,670 non-diabetics 40 or older in the United Kingdom, investigating the association between diet and cataracts in a population with a range of diets. These folks were followed for up to 15 years.

The participants were divided into five groups: high meat eaters; low meat eaters; fish eaters (fish, but no other meat); vegetarians; and vegans (folks who don't eat anything that has a mother). There was a steady decrease in the numbers of cataracts, with the high meat eaters having the most and the vegans the least.

To give some statistics: Vegans were found to have a 40 percent lower chance of getting cataracts. Or to say it in another way, one in five high meat eaters got cataracts, but only one in 25 vegans got them.

It is important to note that eating meat does not necessarily promote cataracts. Rather it could be the eating of plant products that cuts down on the cataracts in vegetarians and vegans.

In prior articles I have mentioned that, in general, animal products have significantly fewer antioxidants than do plant products. And when it comes to phytochemicals, animal products have none. Unfortunately, quite often high meat eaters aren't that much into plant foods.

The website of the American Optometric Association mentions that antioxidants play an important role in preventing cataracts.

There may be another factor in the lifestyle of vegetarians and vegans. In general these folks are less likely to smoke, which is definitely a cause of cataracts. Even secondhand smoke may contribute. There was no mention in the UK study whether people were checked for smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.

It certainly looks like this is another case of the vegetarian advantage. The article I reference was in the May 2011 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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