The carrot myth: Why Popeye would crush Bugs Bunny in a fight for eye health

What if we told you the commonly-held belief that ‘carrots improve your vision’, was in part a result of World War II propaganda?

According to fact-checking authority Snopes, in World War II, Britain’s air ministry spread the word that a diet rich in carrots helped pilots see Nazi bombers attacking at night.

This was a red herring to detract from the fact that the Royal Air Force’s had a secret weapon – an Airborne Interception Radar which could pinpoint enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel.

The disinformation was so persuasive that the English public took to eating carrots to help them find their way during the blackouts.

British WWII propaganda told the public to eat more carrots to see in the blackouts.

Some truth to carrot the carrot myth

Most eye problems stem from vision-impairment caused by genetics and ageing which cannot be aided by boosting your levels of beta-carotene from carrots, which the body converts to Vitamin A (retinol).

However, there is certainly some truth to the war propaganda regarding night vision. Vitamin A is essential for the promotion of general growth, the maintenance of visual function, the regulation of tissues and embryonic development. Vitamin A deficiency can cause visual malfunctions such as night blindness as it helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain, allowing people to see under conditions of low light.

However, in Australia, most us get enough of the vitamin through preformed Vitamin A – high concentrations of which are found in liver and fish oils. Other sources of preformed vitamin A are milk and eggs, which also include some provitamin A.

Most dietary provitamin A comes from leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables, tomato products, fruits, and some vegetable oils.

So, while carrots have the reputation as an eye superfood, beta-carotene is found in much higher concentrations in leafy greens such as spinach.

Truth be told, if Bugs Bunny and Popeye had a fight to prove greater visual acuity, Popeye would trounce Bugs.

A small kale salad has 70,829 IU of retinol and 3.5 milligrams of beta-carotene, whereas a half-cup of raw carrots, has 10,692 (IU) of retinol and 0.534 milligrams of beta-carotene.

Nuts and seeds can reduce risk of macular degeneration progression

While carrots will not prevent or slow the progression of eye disease, nuts and seeds can claim superfood status when it comes to eye health.

Recent studies relating to Vitamin E, found commonly in nuts and seeds, have been shown to reduce the risk of age related macular degeneration (AMD).

According to American Optometric Association, “Nuts and seeds contain a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells against the damaging effects of unstable molecules, called free radicals. An imbalance of free radicals leads to oxidative stress, which in turn, increases the risks for age-related macular degeneration and cataract formation.”

An Age-Related Eye Disease Study has established a link between AMD and nutrition. The study showed that a 400 IU/day intake of vitamin E -- in the form of a supplement also containing beta-carotene, vitamin C, zinc and copper -- could reduce the risk of AMD progression by 25 per cent of subjects at high risk for the disease.

The American Optometric Association cited other studies which have found that long-term vitamin E use correlated with greater lens clarity and slower age-related opacification, while vitamin E, paired with higher dietary intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin, significantly decreased the risk of cataracts.

A Breakthrough in B3

As published in Australian Optometry, recent US ‘breakthrough’ research shows that vitamin B3 or nicotinamide can prevent glaucoma and stop progression of existing disease in animals.

The research published in Science has not been tested on humans, so optometrists are not yet advising patients to rush out and buy vitamins until human trials provide more answers.

It’s all about balance and variety

Researchers have linked eye-friendly nutrients, such as lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc, to reducing the risk of certain eye conditions.

For a list of the antioxidants, their properties and the foods that contain them to help you eat for better eye health, visit  The macular degeneration foundation also has an Eating for Eye Health Cookbook and recipes available on their website.

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