By Stacey Segal, RD
I’m a big believer in asking questions. As in ‘ask the expert’. No one is an expert in everything, but we’re all an expert in something –a little cliche, but this phrase gives us parents permission to ask questions. And not just parent to parent, but also between health professionals and parents. It goes both ways. I also think it’s great for parents to ask their kids questions; like why they like certain foods or why they don’t. They may not have the answers, but sometimes their responses will surprise you. But one of my favorite learning opportunities is from my young patients at my children’s hospital. The things they teach me — bravery, strength, resiliency. It would blow you away – -but, back to nutrition.
Some nutrients are well known, and for good reason. The ones we all talk about often, like iron for example, garner frequent conversations among parents, doctors and dietitians because of their enormous impact on many facets of our health. Then there are other nutrients, like lutein, around which conversations stop after an intro like ‘lutein is good for you’. And you wouldn’t be alone if that’s all ya got. So let’s just ask the question. What on earth is lutein and why is it so important?
What is lutein?
Lutein is a vitamin-like nutrient called a carotenoid. Our bodies do not make lutein, so we need to get it from our diet. Breast milk does contain lutein, but the amount is variable because it’s impacted by mom’s diet. Interestingly, dietary fat helps the body use lutein. That’s why even the relatively small amount of lutein in avocado and egg yolk is actually meaningful. How much should my baby get, you ask? Well there is no current recommended intake for lutein. Science isn’t there yet. But there is a huge body of evidence that it is important.
Why is lutein important?
Lutein is sometimes called a ‘brain nutrient’. That’s because the brain (and the eye) preferentially uses lutein over all the other carotenoids (even beta-carotene). Favoritism, pure and simple. This is why it can impact eye and brain function. It’s well known to help prevent age related macular degeneration in adults. But growing evidence shows that lutein is a crucial nutrient in infant brain development. Lutein supports the primary visual cortex, a part of the brain responsible for organizing and processing the things we see. It’s also been shown to impact memory by helping the brain make new associations. Like when your baby looks at a toy expectantly, remembering that it plays a tune….and then pushes the button endlessly. It’s a little, shall I say bittersweet, how loud the house can get as brain development progresses.
Lutein is sometimes called a ‘brain nutrient’. That’s because the brain (and the eye) preferentially uses lutein over all the other carotenoids (even beta-carotene).
Lutein acts as an antioxidant. This is especially important when we’re talking about the brain and the eyes because these tissues are rich in a DHA, a polyunsaturated fat that is susceptible to oxidation (damage). So lutein (and Vitamin E too) protects these tissues from damage and lets DHA do its job.
Plants are remarkable, right? They give us such amazing nutrition. And I find it fascinating how nutrients work together to be even better! Lutein + Vitamin E + Omega-3 DHA = dream team.
What is a good source of lutein?
Because our bodies do not make lutein, it’s important we find natural sources of this critical vitamin through adequate nutriton. Lutein can be found mostly in dark leafy vegetables, peas, broccoli, egg yolk, pumpkin, yellow carrots, corn and avocados.
Good sources of lutein
- Dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach)
- Egg yolk
- Yellow carrots
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