Seeing red: Poor diet, including too much red meat, linked to macular degeneration

People who consume fried foods, processed meats, and refined grains regularly face triple the risk of developing the eyesight condition.

BUFFALO, N. Y. — Everyone knows an unhealthy diet is inevitably going to lead to weight gain, but a new study finds that it may end up being your eyes that pay the price for poor eating habits. According to a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo, individuals who regularly eat a diet with large amounts of red and processed meat, fried foods, refined grains, and high-fat dairy were about three times more likely to develop the eye condition macular degeneration.

Officially, macular degeneration is usually referred to as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. AMD is irreversible, and greatly affects one’s ability to drive and perform other common daily activities. That’s because the condition damages the retina and affects one’s central vision.

“Treatment for late, neovascular AMD is invasive and expensive, and there is no treatment for geographic atrophy, the other form of late AMD that also causes vision loss. It is in our best interest to catch this condition early and prevent development of late AMD,” says lead author and UB graduate student Shruti Dighe in a media release.

According to Dighe and her team, a typical Western dietary pattern could be a risk factor for developing AMD; such diets tend to favor red and processed meats, high-fat dairy, and refined grains. However, while this research did not find that an average Western diet quickens the development of AMD, it did find evidence that it raises one’s risk of developing the disease in old age.

The study’s authors examined the occurrence of late and early AMD, over the course of 18 years of follow-up research, among participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. Dighe and her team used data from 66 different foods that participants reported consuming between 1987 and 1995. Using this information, they identified two major diet patterns among participants: Western, and a healthier diet that researchers called “prudent.”

“What we observed in this study was that people who had no AMD or early AMD at the start of our study and reported frequently consuming unhealthy foods were more likely to develop vision-threatening, late stage disease approximately 18 years later,” says study co-author Dr. Amy Millen, associate professor and associate chair of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Buffalo.

This study is one of the first ever to analyze diet patterns and subsequent development of AMD over time.

“Our work provides additional evidence that diet matters,” Millen adds. “From a public health standpoint, we can tell people that if you have early AMD, it is likely in your best interest to limit your intake of processed meat, fried food, refined grains and high-fat dairy to preserve your vision over time.”

The study is published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

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