The Impact of Sugar Consumption on Eye Health

candyThe winter holiday season offers us many opportunities for celebration and joy. Along with festive parties and gift-exchanges come lots of wonderful holiday treats, including my favorites: sugar cookies, gingerbread, and hot chocolate stirred with a candy cane. This time of year, it can be very easy to overindulge in too many sweets. Added sugars are well known to contribute to weight gain and tooth decay and are even linked to the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Did you know that a diet high in sugar can also adversely impact eye health?

Sugars are simple carbohydrates that are readily absorbed by the body. While simple carbohydrates can be found naturally in foods such as fruits and vegetables, they also include sugars that are added to processed foods and used in baked goods and sweets. The difference between sugars that occur naturally in foods and those that are added is that foods with added sugars lack essential nutrients and are more quickly utilized by the body. For instance, a whole orange provides fiber, vitamins, and minerals, along with sweetness for a satisfying snack that can leave you feeling full. In contrast, a handful of orange-flavored candies offers nothing more than empty calories lacking in nutrition that are quickly digested and do not contribute to a feeling of fullness.

Recent research has shown that sugar consumption is linked to a number of serious eye health conditions. Results obtained from the large-scale Age Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) indicate that those at risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) may benefit from minimizing added sugars and refined carbohydrates in their diets in order to reduce the risk and advancement of this blinding eye disease. The formation of cataracts has also been associated with excessive consumption of simple carbohydrates. Studies suggest that high sugar concentration in the lens of the eye may lead to protein damage and clumping that contributes to the cataract formation. For our BFS patients with dry eye, it is interesting to note that consumption of simple sugars or carbohydrates has been shown to aggravate dry eye symptoms. It is hypothesized that the resulting sugar spikes deliver too much glucose to the eye too quickly and hinder the ability of the eye to utilize the energy provided by the glucose.

Both cataracts and dry eye are associated at much higher rates with people who have diabetes in comparison to the general population. Although the development of type 2 diabetes is much more complex than simply consuming too much sugar and simple carbohydrates, there is a correlation. More than half of all patients with diabetes report dry eye symptoms or are diagnosed with dry eye. Additionally, rates of cataracts are much higher in people with diabetes.

If you are looking to reduce added sugars in your diet, here are a few suggestions:

  • Drink water instead of sugar-sweetened sodas or fruit-flavored beverages
  • Substitute fruit instead of sweets for dessert
  • Choose prepared foods, such as breakfast cereals and crackers, without added sugars

Remember to read food labels carefully to identify added sugars. Common types of added sugar can include: cane juice or syrup, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, malt syrup, and molasses.

Have you found that sugar consumption adversely affects your eyes? What tips do you have for reducing sugar and eating healthfully during the holidays?