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Vegans Less Prone To Cataracts

April 10, 2011

A British study has found that eating less meat and more vegetables is tied to a lower risk of cataracts.

Researchers found that about three in 50 meat eaters had cataracts, compared to about two in 50 vegans and vegetarians.

The results translated to a 30 to 40 percent lower cataract risk among vegetarians and vegans compared with the biggest meat eaters.

“People who don’t eat meat have a significantly lower risk of developing cataracts,” Naomi Allen, an epidemiologist at the UK’s University of Oxford who coauthored the study, told Reuters.

A cataract occurs when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy and blurs vision.  According to the National Eye Institute, they are more common in older people and over half of Americans either have cataracts by the time they are 80 or have had surgery for them.

Allen told Reuters that the researcher’s findings do not mean that people should become vegetarians to avoid getting cataracts.

Smoking, diabetes, and exposure to bright sunlight are all linked to an increased risk for cataracts.

Dr. Jack Dodick, who chairs the department of ophthalmology at New York University Lagone Medical Center, told Reuters that the new findings actually contradict a study done in India, where a vegetarian diet was associated with high numbers of cataracts.

“It means that still to this day we don’t know what influences cataracts. It may be more lifestyle. There may be other factors in causing cataract other than diet,” Dodick, who did not work on the current study, told Reuters Health.

The British researchers asked over 27,600 people older than 40 to fill out dietary surveys between 1993 and 1999.  The team then monitored the participants’ medical records between 2008 and 2009 to see if they developed cataracts.  About half of the participants had cataracts during the follow-up period.

The highest risk was seen among the heaviest meat-eaters, which were those who consumed over 3.5 ounces of meat a day.  Fish eaters’ risk was 15 percent lower than that of the heavy meat eaters, while vegetarians’ risk dropped 30 percent and vegans 40 percent.

Dodick said the study was well done, but there are “still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

He said whether nutrition really plays a role in cataract risk is still unclear.

Cataract surgery can typically cost between $1,500 and $3,000.

“It’s the most performed operation in the U.S.,” Dodick told Reuters. “Approximately 3.5 million cataract surgeries are performed a year.”

To decrease the probability of early onset cataracts, “the top of my list would be always protect eyes against ultraviolet rays when outdoors (by wearing sunglasses),” Dodick said.

“The moral of the story is, live life in moderation,” Dodick added. “A healthy active lifestyle with exercise might decrease the risk of cataracts.”

The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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