A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, whole foods, and antioxidants may help prevent or reduce symptoms of dry eye. Understanding which foods to eat more of and those to limit can help a person keep dry eyes lubricated.

Dry eye is a condition that affects the ability of the eyes to stay lubricated. It can occur when the eyes are not able to make enough tears or when the tears evaporate too quickly to keep the eyes hydrated. This can lead to irritation, injuries, and infections of the eye.

Many people experience dry eye at some point, but it most commonly affects females and adults over 50 years. Other factors can also influence the risk of developing dry eye, including a diet low in certain vitamins and nutrients.

Below, experts share their insights into how the foods a person eats can lead to dry eye, as well as dietary changes that can help support optimal eye health.

The foods a person eats contain the nutritional building blocks the body needs to perform its typical functions. A diet low in certain nutrients can lead to health issues, including dry eye. For example, research notes that deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids increase the likelihood of dry eye.

“Omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for maintaining optimal meibomian gland function, which contributes a healthy tear layer to the eye,” explained Carrie Roitstein, OD, PNP, an optometrist and personalized nutrition practitioner working in Chicago.

“Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning that your body doesn’t make them,” added Britni Vincent, RD, LD, a registered dietitian based in St. Paul, MN. “You must get them from a food or supplement source.”

“Vitamin A deficiency can [also] lead to dry eyes and affect eye health overall,” she said. “Vitamin A helps support tear production and lubricate the eyes.”

Lower levels of other nutrients that researchers have linked to dry eye risk include:

  • vitamins B1, B12, and C
  • calcium
  • polyunsaturated fats

Vincent explained that nutrient deficiencies do not only develop as a result of certain foods missing from the diet. “Eating a lot of processed foods will cause nutrient deficiencies not only because of the lack of nutrients in processed food but also because metabolizing sugar in the body increases nutritional demands,” she said.

She noted that excess sugar in the diet can also lead to inflammation that damages the eye and affects tear production.

“It’s important to note that all carbohydrates turn to sugar in the body,” Vincent added. “So even if people aren’t eating candy and sweets but they are eating a lot of bread, pasta, and crackers, those processed carbohydrates will have the same effect.”

“Whole foods, or less processed foods, balanced with a sufficient amount of omega-3 fatty acids support ocular health,” said Roitstein. “Studies have shown improvements in the tear layer while also combating the inflammatory component of dry eye disease with a balanced diet rich in omega-3s.”

Vincent agreed, suggesting a diet rich in protein and healthy fats, with most carbohydrates consumed in the form of vegetables. In a 2020 study, researchers found an association between plant-based diets and less severe dry eye symptoms compared with other diets. Research has also shown that a Mediterranean diet improves measures of dry eye symptoms.

To help increase levels of specific nutrients that promote eye health, Vincent and Roitstein offered a few suggestions:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Sources include fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Organic, pasture-raised egg yolks also contain forms of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts, flaxseed, and olive oil may also provide necessary healthy fats.
  • Vitamin A: Food sources of vitamin A and beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, include grass-fed beef liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, and leafy greens.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin: These antioxidants support eye and brain health. Sources include eggs, leafy greens, broccoli, citrus fruits, and some spices.
  • Zinc: “Zinc is a vital coenzyme for eye tissue,” explained Vincent. “It also helps get vitamin A from your liver to retina to make melanin, which protects your eye. Food sources include oysters, beef, lobster, pork, yogurt, salmon, and eggs.”

“I always recommend individuals focus on food first,” said Vincent. “Start to incorporate more whole food into your diet and reduce your processed foods. By doing that, individuals often notice they feel better overall and will likely notice an improvement in their dry eyes.”

When making dietary changes, Vincent noted that it is a process that takes time and recommends people start by looking at what they eat for breakfast. “By eating a balanced breakfast that’s high in protein and contains fiber from veggies and healthy fats, that sets you up to feel better and have less cravings during the day,” she said.

“When you get a variety of whole protein, whole carbohydrates, and healthy fats in your diet, you will most likely be getting all or most of the critical nutrients for eye health,” Vincent said.

However, she noted that she does often recommend an omega-3 supplement. “I find that people don’t eat enough fatty fish to get adequate omega-3s, and there are many health benefits of omega-3s in addition to eye health,” she added.

A 2022 study involving 50 people with severe dry eye found that those who received daily omega-3 fatty acid supplements experienced meaningful improvements in dry eye symptoms within 3 months compared with those who did not take the supplements.

“Probiotics can be another helpful supplement aiming to achieve a healthy gut,” added Roitstein. She noted that gut problems can contribute to nutritional deficiencies and may also lead to inflammation throughout the body, which can trigger dry eye symptoms.

“If you are still struggling with dry eyes after making diet modifications, then I would suggest another supplement,” said Vincent. A registered dietitian can help evaluate a person’s diet to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need to support optimal eye health from their food and determine what supplements they may need.

A person can try limiting or avoiding processed foods or food that contain added sugar, “which often lack the nutrients that are necessary for eye health,” said Vincent. Instead, people can aim to eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, cereals, fish, and olive oil.

Roitstein echoed Vincent’s recommendations, noting that diet can affect various other factors that contribute to dry eye, such as gut health and hormone levels. If a person is experiencing dry eye, a team of experts in both eye health and nutrition can help them evaluate their diet and determine what changes may be necessary to address the underlying causes of their symptoms.

“To prevent or reduce symptoms of dry eye, optimal nutrition is necessary to reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy tear layer,” said Roitstein.

The food a person eats influences many aspects of their health. Research suggests that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, whole foods, and antioxidants may help prevent or reduce symptoms of dry eye, demonstrating that diet is a key component of ocular care.

“We must continue to look at food as medicine with the intention of treating any chronic disease — including dry eyes,” Roitstein concluded.