Vegetable Oils & Macular Degeneration Eye Condition Linked to Diet

by Anna Coren

Macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness in Australia but new research suggests avoiding vegetable oils could prevent the condition. It's spreading like a disease - a blindness called macular degeneration affecting at least 800,000 Australians and costing $1.5 billion per year in health care. But with the latest research pointing to vegetable oils as the main culprit, it's possible we may be able to fend off this disease by simply changing our diets.

You might not cook with vegetable or canola oil but take a look at the ingredients in any sauce, dip, bread, margarine or biscuit - any processed food for that matter. Vegetable oil is hidden in all of them. Most of us have been consuming these processed foods from the time we could walk.

Dr Paul Beaumont from the Macular Degeneration Foundation has been studying the link.

 "[The research] showed that people eating vegetable oil got the disease twice as commonly as the people who didn't," Dr Beaumont said. "Even more convincing was a prospective study where they looked at patients with the disease and those eating too much vegetable oil progressed at 3.8 times the rate of those eating a little vegetable oil. You look at bread, they make it on margarine, you look at currants and they've gone and sprayed vegetable oil on them to stop them from sticking, you go and try and get tinned fish and they've put it in vegetable oil. So yes, it's become ubiquitous, it's crept right into our food chain and you hardly know you're eating it."

Gwen Oliver was diagnosed with macular degeneration two years ago. She was astonished when Dr Beaumont told her to steer clear of vegetable oils and only cook with extra virgin olive oil. "I was surprised about diet and all the products that we've been eating in the past," Ms Oliver said. "We've always had it advertised that vegetable oil was far better for us." The macular sits at the back of the eye. It's made up of many different nerve cells. The oils that you eat become part of your eye but normally they're used and flushed out. When you're eating vegetable oils, researchers believe the eye can't seem to biodegrade the oil and it ends up blocking the cells and causing macular degeneration.

"In the 1920s and 30s they started to get big presses that produced hundreds of tons of vegetable oil," Dr Beaumont said. "In 1957 margarine outsold butter so we've had this massive infiltration of our food chain by vegetable oils." Dr Beaumont says he doesn't envisage vegetable oil being removed from all foods, but says there should be a consumer health warning. "I think we have to have a warning on the packages similar to a warning of a cigarette package: 'vegetable oil can lead to macular degeneration'," he said.

The major reason for blindness in Australia 30 years ago was diabetes and it was rare to find macular degeneration. Today the condition has overtaken diabetes five-fold and is now the leading cause of loss of vision in Australia. Two-thirds of those who lose their vision are blind due to macular degeneration. "I've seen an exponential rise from the early 1970s through to the 1990s," Dr Beaumont said. "If we look at Japan 40 years ago the disease was rare, now it's common. I don't think there's any doubt we have an epidemic."

Dr Paul Beaumont is horrified at the rate macular degeneration has multiplied. He's seen a tenfold increase in the last 30 years. "I think we could halve the number of people going blind with macular degeneration if we could change their diet, cut out the vegetable oil," Dr Beaumont said. When macular degeneration strikes, patients like Gwen Oliver are first given laser therapy to help stem the bleeding. They're also told to look at a chart daily and if they see any difference in the lines on the charts - such as a straight line looking bent - it's back to Dr Beaumont for treatment. But for Jillian Price, laser therapy didn't work. Her last chance is a cutting edge treatment called photodynamic therapy. It doesn't look like much but it causes plenty to happen inside the body. "You inject a chemical that slowly accumulates in that blood vessel and doesn't accumulate in normal tissues," Dr Beaumont said. "And then you shine a light on the eye and it selectively activates that chemical that shuts down the abnormal tissue and [does] not damage the normal." For Jillian Price, the disease has disabled her life as an active woman. "Two months is very fast to lose so much sight; I've lost a lot of my independence," Ms Price said. "The distance, everything is distorted, getting on the buses, shopping is very hard, I can't read labels any more. One day I was doing crosswords and the next day I couldn't."

A specialist told Colin Noble he'd be blind within 18 months. Luckily Colin sought a second opinion and today he's one of the lucky 10 per cent who regain vision after having photodynamic therapy. "Usually the treatment merely stops or slows down the degeneration. It's a miracle, I'm so grateful for this man," Mr Noble said. "It's had a big effect on my life and my family's life … it's allowed me to do so many things. I can still tie a fish hook, important things like that … I'm a very lucky bloke."

Dr Beaumont has lobbied the federal Health Department to help fund this huge problem, but to date nothing has happened. "I think they should move fairly urgently," he said. "I don't think we can afford to delay in informing the public about something which can be affecting their vision." The federal Health Department is looking into this massive problem but wouldn't tell us any more than that. As for the Australian Food and Grocery Council - the voice of the food manufacturers who use vegetable oil - they had nothing to say, except that they were waiting to hear more evidence linking vegetable oil and macular degeneration. "There are hundreds of thousands of Australians waiting for that advice," Dr Beaumont said. "And I think the government has to move quickly." For more information please contact the Macular Degeneration Foundation on 1800 111 709 or visit <> BROADCAST DATE: July 5, 2004 Channel 7, Today, Tonight Further Resources
Need an eating plan to get you out of trouble? Health Wars by Phillip Day
Food or Thought by Phillip Day Click here <> to purchase or review any of the above.
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Click here <info.htm> if you wish to contact Credence for information on treatment options or resources.

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