Eye health is often one of the last things we think of when we consider diabetes management, and that may be because diabetes can affect the eyes without noticeable signs or symptoms. Over time, high blood sugar damages the tiny blood vessels in the eyes causing them to leak or bleed which if gone untreated may lead to blindness.

There are several different types of diabetic eye disease and they include diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema, glaucoma and cataracts. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI) at the National Institute of Health (NIH) “Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetes and a leading cause of blindness among working-age adults” and “between 40 and 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy” (1).  

The good news is that there are several effective preventative measures and treatment options for diabetic retinopathy, as long as it is detected early. Just like getting your A1C checked, an eye exam should be a regular part of your diabetes care.  Here are the most important things you can do to keep your eyes healthy:

See an eye care professional at least once a year.

Your eye care professional can look into your eyes and assess if treatment is needed long before you may notice a change in vision. According to the NEI “early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent”(1). Most insurance plans cover a visit to an eye doctor so call or go online to find out what they offer.  If you experience any changes in vision report them to your provider.  According to the America Optometric association the common symptoms of diabetic retinopathy are: “Seeing spots or floaters, blurred vision, having a dark or empty spot in the center of your vision, or difficulty seeing well at night” (2).

Maintain blood sugar control.

Elevated blood sugar causes damage to the blood vessel in your eyes.  You cannot see or feel the damage until it become severe which is why it is so important to get your eyes checked regularly.  When you keep your blood sugars within your goal range, you are reducing your risk of damage to your eyes.

Maintain healthy blood pressure: Check blood pressure and keep it within goal range with healthy diet, doctor prescribed exercise and medication. Having healthy blood pressure reduces the pressure on the blood vessels in the eyes, thereby reducing the risk of damage.

Eat a healthy diet.

Eating more fruits and vegetables can improve blood pressure and weight. According to the American Academy of ophthalmology the 4 foods that will improve eye health the most are kale (and other leafy greens), salmon (and other fatty fish), oranges (and other citrus) and black eyed peas (and other legumes) (3). Include these foods in your diet daily as a protective measure for your eyes.

Maintain or work towards a healthy weight.

Being overweight increases your risk of developing nerve damage in the eyes and other areas of the body. The closer you are to a healthy weight, the lower your risk for weight related nerve damage. Ask your doctor for a referral to a Certified Diabetes Educator and get a personalized dietary plan. Most insurance plans cover at least one visit to a CDE per year. 
Don’t smoke, especially with diabetes: Smoking increases risk for age related macular degeneration, cataracts, and optic nerve damage.  Smoking also increases blood sugar, and accelerates the effect of diabetic retinopathy (4). Talk to your doctor about making a plan to quit smoking. Or call: 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) to speak with a counselor and get support.

You can protect your eyes.  Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to see an eye care professional for a dilated eye exam. Keep in mind that “only optometrists and ophthalmologists can detect the signs of retinopathy. Only ophthalmologists can treat retinopathy” (5), so going to get new driving glasses does not count as an exam. Your eyes will stay healthy along with the rest of you as long as you take good care of them.  Take these important steps to keep your eye working at their best. 

For more information on diabetes and eye health please visit these websites:

By: Laurel Shonerd, RD, CDE
Cecelia Health Certified Diabetes Educator


  1. National Eye Institute
  2. American Optometric Association
  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology
  4. Healthline
  5. American Diabetes Association