Joel Hunter, MD Refractive Surgeon, Hunter Vision Updated 04/29/17 5:32 PM
I’m often asked, “Will eating carrots help my eyes?” I love this question, because it gives me the chance to say, “Yes, but you should only require a low-dose formula. I’d prescribe baby carrots to start.” As I wait for the laughter to begin—usually that silent, internal, non-smiling kind of laughter—it gives me a chance to collect my thoughts for a better answer. So today I’ve got an opportunity to answer this question once and for all, which will be a huge relief for a lot of you, because you probably started the day with a lot of confusion and concern about carrots and how they affect your eyes.
The relationship of carrots to eyesight actually has its basis in biochemistry and not just plain ol’ country wisdom. No one’s ever said, “That guy’s got eyes like a rabbit.” No, it’s because carrots are very rich in a molecule called beta carotene. (See the word carrot in there? Yes, it’s spelled wrong; I imagine the other “r” was lost in the experiments.) Beta carotene is very easily broken down in our bodies into Vitamin A through some enzymatic magic that happens in our gut. Actually, each molecule of beta carotene is transformed into two molecules of Vitamin A. That biochemical B.O.G.O. makes carrots a really great source of Vitamin A.
Here’s where the dramatic reveal of Vitamin A’s other true secret chemical name helps everything make sense. Vitamin A is actually called retinol. Tada! It’s not a coincidence that it sounds so close to the “retina” found in your eye. The retina has millions of photoreceptors that capture light and turn it into nerve impulses, which are then sent to the brain to be interpreted as “vision.” The retina does this by using the molecule retinal (which comes from retinol—A.K.A. Vitamin A). A red or green or blue pigment protein attached to retinal makes it react and change shape when it’s hit by light of the same color. For instance, when blue light enters your eye and hits the retina, the retinal molecule responds with an electrical signal that says, “BLUE IS HERE!” And we see blue there.
As you can see, the humble carrot ends up being transformed by our bodies into insanely complex molecules that our photoreceptors need for us to be able to see. Does that mean carrots help you see better? No. Not really. Unless you are exceptionally malnourished, there’s a nearly 100% chance that you get more than enough Vitamin A in your normal diet. More Vitamin A doesn’t help you see better if you already have enough. So you don’t need to eat more carrots if you don’t want to, but if you decide to, remember to start with low-dose baby carrots.