How eye nutrients help kids learn
Parents are naturally interested in their children’s well being with concerns ranging from health and safety to physical and academic performance. Good nutrition is essential for proper growth, development and health. Likewise, a well-nourished child is able to perform better in school and accomplish more academically. While a balanced diet with a variety of nutrient-rich foods is key to success, two little known nutrients, lutein and zeaxanthin, may also play an important role in a child’s ability to learn.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin Defined
Lutein and zeaxanthin are two of the 600 plant nutrients in the carotenoid family. Carotenoids are yellow, orange and red pigments that give color to plants like brightly colored fruits and vegetables as well as autumn leaves. Specifically, lutein and zeaxanthin are abundant in dark green and orange fruits and vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bell pepper, turnip greens, peas, corn, squash, sweet potato, pumpkin, melon, nectarines, oranges, papaya, guava, grapes and along with egg yolks.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are fat-soluble nutrients, meaning they need to be eaten with a bit of fat to help them be absorbed into the body. That makes eggs a good choice because they naturally contain some fat. To enhance absorption of lutein and zeaxanthin, cook vegetables with a little oil, serve them with cheese or salad dressing and combine fruit with low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin in the Body
As the only two carotenoids in eye’s macula (the yellow oval area in the retina), lutein and zeaxanthin protect the retina from oxygen and ultraviolet sunlight damage that may lead to macular degeneration. Macular degeneration can result in blindness as we age. In addition, studies have documented that the more lutein and zeaxanthin there is in the macula of the eye, the more there is in the brain.1
And when it comes to the brain, studies show that adults with higher levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in the macula have better mental functioning.2,3 Furthermore, there is evidence that taking lutein and zeaxanthin supplements can also increase cognitive performance.4,5,6 And there is even more promising news. Lutein accumulates in the brain early in life7 so it is likely that a positive effect on “brain power” occurs in childhood, too.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin in the Brain
Recent studies have documented higher levels of macular lutein and zeaxanthin are related to reasoning and memory in school-aged children. In one study with 8 to 10-year-olds, those with higher macular lutein and zeaxanthin performed a mental task with greater accuracy and better attention.8
Other researchers found that a group of 7 to 10 year old children with higher macular lutein and zeaxanthin levels had better memory and recall by making fewer mistakes when they reconstructed a previously learned layout of items in a space.9
Finally, results of a study that compared macular lutein and zeaxanthin levels with academic achievement in school children showed that higher levels were linked with better overall academic achievement as well as performance on specific subjects like math and written language skills. This was the first study to demonstrate lutein and zeaxanthin’s positive influence on school achievement in children.10
Boosting Lutein and Zeaxanthin Intake
Getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables is often a challenge but in order to increase intake of lutein and zeaxanthin, finding ways to boost intake is crucial. Consider these kid-friendly ideas to make fruits and veggies more appealing.
Add grated squash or canned pumpkin puree to breads and muffins.
Toss chopped broccoli, spinach and bell pepper or frozen peas into casseroles, meatballs or meatloaf.
Grill sweet potatoes, corn on the cob or Brussels sprouts with olive oil.
Keep frozen and canned fruits and vegetables on-hand for easy sides at meals or desserts with yogurt or cottage cheese.
Add melon, pumpkin puree or spinach to smoothies made with low-fat yogurt and milk for breakfast or a snack.
Fill your refrigerator with sliced melon, orange sections and grapes for snacking. Dip fruits in low-fat vanilla yogurt or pumpkin butter. Try veggies like sliced zucchini, broccoli florets and bell pepper strips with herbed Greek yogurt or hummus.
Create scrambled eggs or omelets with squash, spinach, bell pepper and broccoli. Or serve a side of melon or grapes with your eggs.
Try a hard-boiled egg on a popsicle stick dipped in mustard for a snack.
1. Vishwanathan, Neuringer, et al., 2013. Nutr Neuroscience, 16(1):21
2. Kelly D, Coen RF, Akuffo KO, Beatty S, Dennison J, Moran R, Stack J, Howard AN, Mulcahy R, Nolan J (2015) Cognitive function and its relationship with macular pigment optical density and serum concentrations of its constituent carotenoids. J Alzheimers Dis 48:261–277.
3. Vishwanathan, Innaccone et al., 2014. Macular pigment optical density is related to cognitive function in older people. Age and Ageing, 43(2):271.
4. Lindbergh, et al. (2017) Lutein and Zeaxanthin Influence Brain Function in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 23, 1–14.'
5. Hammond BR Jr. et al. (2017) Effects of Lutein/Zeaxanthin Supplementation on the Cognitive Function of Community Dwelling Older Adults: A Randomized, Double-Masked, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Front. Aging Neurosci. 9:254.
6. Renzi-Hammond et al. (2017) Effects of a Lutein and Zeaxanthin Intervention on Cognitive Function: A Randomized, Double-Masked, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Younger Healthy Adults, Nutrients, 9, 1246; doi:10.3390/nu9111246.
7. Vishwanathan, Kuchan, et al., 2014. Lutein and preterm infants with decreased concentrations of brain carotenoids. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr., 59(5):659.
8. Walk AM, Khan NA, Barnett SM, Raine LB, Kramer AF, Cohen NJ, et al. From neuro-pigments to neural efficiency: The relationship between retinal carotenoids and behavioral and neuroelectric indices of cognitive control in childhood. Int J Psychophysiol. 2017;118.
9. Hassevoort KM, Khazoum SE, Walker JA, Barnett SM, Raine LB, Hammond BR, et al. Macular Carotenoids, Aerobic Fitness, and Central Adiposity Are Associated Differentially with Hippocampal-Dependent Relational Memory in Preadolescent Children. J Pediatr. 2017;183:108–114.e1.
10. Barnett SM, Khan NA, Walk AM, Raine LB, Moulton C, Cohen NJ, et al. Macular pigment optical density is positively associated with academic performance among preadolescent children. Nutr Neurosci [Internet]. 2017 May 23 [cited 2017 Jul 4];1–9. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2017.1329976.