Maybe you heard it as a kid when you didn’t want to finish your vegetables. Maybe you heard it at the farmers market as you bought a bunch of carrots. It doesn’t matter where you heard it, but nearly everyone has heard the common saying that carrots are good for your eyesight. While the science suggests that carrots could help to improve your eyesight, it’s not as clear cut as you might think. So if your ophthalmologist in Alexandria isn’t handing out this advice, where did it come from?
This common line actually has its roots in the Second World War and its story is more nuanced than you might realize.
War Time Exigencies Puts Carrots on the Front Lines
In the summer of 1940, Britain stood alone against the brutal war machine of Nazi Germany. Using their deadly air force, the Luftwaffe, Germany strategically bombed much of Britain, including its capital city of London. To mitigate the damage, the British government instituted city-wide blackouts so that the German bombers couldn’t identify their targets while bombing at night.
But the German onslaught wasn’t as effective as the Nazis had hoped. This was in part because of a new technological development in the Royal Air Force ─ Airborne Interception Radar could track German bombers as they flew across the English Channel.
This was a war-winning technology and one that the British didn’t want the Germans finding out about. In order to keep radar a secret, the British Ministry of Information began a clever propaganda campaign that explained how RAF pilots could seemingly shoot German planes out of the night sky, and perhaps to poke fun at the Nazis at the same time: Carrots were the source of the sharp eyesight of the RAF pilots.
Winning the War One Salad at a Time
Between this new propaganda campaign, and the development of radar, daring pilots like John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham were able to shoot down countless enemy planes at night. But did the propaganda work on the enemy? Did they really believe that a diet rich in carrots allowed the RAF to repel the Luftwaffe? Historians are split on this. There’s anecdotal evidence that suggests that German pilots were encouraged to eat more carrots before their next bombing sortie, but this may be mere story.
Whether the Nazis bought it is still up for debate, but the “carrots improve your night sight” idea caught on with the British public. Soon, government ads and propaganda from the food Ministry began being spread with slogans like “Carrots keep you healthy and help you to see in the blackout.” These ads served two purposes: one as a way to instill a sense of confidence in a British population that was in constant threat of being bombed, and also to limit the effects of food rationing.
In 1941, the German navy began a blockade of the British Isles. This made staples like butter, sugar, and bacon largely unavailable. To ensure that the government had enough of these valuable foods for their front line soldiers, they began rationing many foods. Not on the rationing lists, however, were foods like sweet potatoes, bread, and of course, carrots. In fact, the British Ministry of Food, led by Lord Woolton, started a Dig For Victory campaign that encouraged Brittons everywhere to start growing their own gardens and to eat more vegetables.
The carrot was the Ministry’s favorite food, and they actively promoted its use as a sugar-alternative, a way to make desserts, and more. Over the radio, Brittons could listen to The Kitchen Front, a daily broadcast the offered up new and creative ways to use carrots. The nation responded positively to these campaigns, and by 1942, the Ministry of Food suggested that there was a 100,000 ton surplus of the vegetable.
Ultimately, the Allied nations would go on to win WWII, but many of the propaganda campaigns that were designed to help win the war would last long after the last bomb would drop. With a sharp eye, you might find hints and call outs to that wartime era in the most unexpected of places, including at your local eye doctor’s office.
So are Carrots Really Good for Your Eyes?
After the war, the idea that carrots could improve your night sight slowly changed and became that they could improve your eyesight as a whole. But is there any truth to this idea? Short answer, yes. Long answer, it depends. You see, your body needs minerals like beta-carotene to help make vitamin A. Vitamin A is a critical part of healthy eyes, as it helps your eye convert light into a signal that your brain can process. This is how your brain sees things in low-light conditions. Not only that, but the cornea of your eye can actually disappear if you don’t get enough vitamin A.
But carrots aren’t the only source of beta-carotene in your diet. A study in 2005 compared cooked carrots compared to other foods that were rich in vitamin A. The study looked at carrots, fortified rice, amaranth leaf, and goat liver and their effects on night blindness in pregnant women. The study found that all of the foods had roughly the same effect, but vitamin A supplements had the largest impact.
Other studies found that carrots, and the beta-carotene within them, are not the most efficient way to get vitamin A. Indeed, these studies simply argued that vitamin A supplements are a more effective way to get the vitamins you need. Not only that, but eating a lot of carrots may not improve your eyesight at all. After all, once your body has an adequate amount of the beta-carotene, your body will no longer convert it into vitamin A. That’s because too much vitamin A can actually be toxic to your body.
So Which Veggies Should You Eat to Improve Your Eyesight?
Like most things in life, enjoy everything in moderation. The best way to help care for your eyes is to eat a diet that’s rich in leafy green vegetables. We outlined a few different foods that are good for your eyes in a recent blog post, so make sure to give that a read.
Trust Your Ophthalmologist in Alexandria to Care for Your Eyes
Not one for carrots? That’s ok. Dr. Sina J. Sabet, MD, PC is recognized as a leading ophthalmologist in Alexandria, and for good reason. As an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology & Pathology at Georgetown University and a Fellow at the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Sabet can utilize his years of experience and skills to help you enjoy a lifetime of healthy eyes. Connect with our office today to schedule your comprehensive eye exam, emergency eye care, LASIK or eye surgery, or get fitted for glasses and contacts.