Holler for collards

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Vegetables may make you see red (and orange, purple, black and white)

Green may be the next great color for eyes. Leafy verdant vegetables like spinach and collard greens could protect your peepers against the leading cause of blindness in people over age 65.

So far, diet looks like the only promising way to thwart the onset of this disease called macular degeneration. The advanced form strikes about 1 in 100 people by age 65. By age 75, the risk is 1 in 20.

Earlier studies hinted that nutrients called antioxidants could stave off this disease, in which blood vessels in the macula (part of the retina) develop sight-blocking leaks. This study provides the first evidence regarding diet: People who consumed the highest amounts of carotenoids lowered their risk of macular degeneration by 43 percent, compared to people who ate the least. This study also suggests that two specific carotenoids--lutein and zeaxanthin--are most strongly associated with a reduction in risk. With regard to specific foods, eating one-half cup of spinach or collard greens per week, or more often, was associated with a lower risk, and the more often the better.

Those exotic-sounding nutrients aren't hard to find: This study pinpointed spinach and collard greens as offering the most benefits, but the nutrients are also plentiful in kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, parsley and dill. Lutein and zea-xanthin are present, but a little more sparse, in broccoli, brussels sprouts, raw leek, leaf lettuce, celery, squash and pumpkin. Researchers discerned this reduction in risk after polling 356 people with macular degeneration and 520 without, on their eating habits during the past year (Journal of the American Medical Association, November 9, 1994).

Since the macula contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, it may be particularly susceptible to damage from the free radicals created in the course of simply living through a day. The two carotenoids mentioned may disarm those radicals enough to leave the cells--and your sight--in good working order, says Johanna M. Seddon, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health.

"The study showed that more frequent intake of these nutrients and foods was better," she says. "The maximum reduction in risk was 80 percent for people who consumed these vegetables five or more times per week, though there were few people in this category so we have to be cautious."

So should you start to holler for collards? "It seems prudent," says Dr. Seddon, to eat more vegetables, particularly dark green leafy ones, which are high in these particular carotenoids. Even if you've never handled them before, collards, kale or other greens can be turned into tasty dishes without a whole lot of research. Dice these greens and place them where you'd use broccoli on a pizza. Or make a side dish in a minute by sauteing these greens with a little olive oil. Get creative with the spices: Try ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg; ginger and chili pepper; or just use garlic.

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By Marty Munson with Teresa Yeykal

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