Can carrots really make you see in the dark?

Carrots are packed with nutrients, but can they help your eyesight?
Carrots are packed with nutrients, but can they help your eyesight?

The claim: Carrots can make you see better in the dark.

As a child, your mother probably told you to finish all the carrots on your plate. "It will make you see in the dark," she may have said, while dishing you another spoonful.

But is there any truth to this, or is a just a cheap trick mothers use to get their children to eat carrots? Or do mothers themselves perhaps believe that carrots will give you excellent night vision? We examine the science behind this popular belief. 

Better eyesight 

Can carrots help improve your vision? It could. Under certain conditions, eating carrots will help improve eyesight, according to Scientific American.

The body uses beta-carotene (the pigment of carrots) to make vitamin A, and vitamin A is really important, says Emily Chew, deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute in the USA.

Vitamin A helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain to allow people to see in difficult conditions. Without vitamin A, the cornea of the eye can literally disappear.

Yet, it’s important to distinguish between beta-carotene in carrots, and straight vitamin A. Research has shown that beta-carotene from carrots doesn’t convert into vitamin A very efficiently. You would probably be better off taking a vitamin A supplement than consuming bunches of carrots.

Night vision

And what about night vision? The exact amount of carrots you need to optimise your night vision is also unclear. According to research, it would be extremely difficult to eat enough carrots to significantly improve your night vision.

In fact, too much vitamin A could be toxic, and the body naturally regulates levels to prevent a dangerous buildup. High levels of vitamin A can cause symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and headaches and even lead to a coma and death. It can cause birth deformities in unborn babies when pregnant women take abnormally high amounts of vitamin A.  

We now know that beta-carotene isn’t the same as straight vitamin A, and that too much beta-carotene can actually cause carotenemia, a harmless condition that turns skin yellow or orange.

An interesting study conducted in 1999 shows that poor night vision was associated with a higher intake of beta-carotene, but the researchers couldn’t determine whether the beta-carotene was the actual cause of poor night vision. The study, however, indicated that beta-carotene didn’t actually reverse poor night vision.

Although higher beta-carotene levels can't help fix existing poor night vision, it is still true that a vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness, a condition where people have difficulty adjusting their vision to low levels of light.

An old myth

The origin of the myth that carrots allow you to see in the dark may be traced back to World War II when German planes were targeting Britain at night. In order to make it more difficult for these planes to identify their targets, the British government ordered blackouts and developed secret radar technology that worked well against the German fighters in the dark.

The Ministry of Information kept the new technology secret by giving all the credit to carrots, implying that their fighters had developed night vision as a result of eating carrots. This soon became a craze with the British public, with some people still believing this myth.

The verdict?

Consuming copious levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene will not reverse damaged eyesight. While there is some truth in the notion that vegetables, such as carrots, are rich in antioxidants and may protect you against cataracts in the future, there is no direct correlation between carrots and strong eyesight. According to Harvard Medical School, consuming carrots will not help prevent future vision problems, nor will it reverse existing problems.

Want to maintain your eye health? Go for an annual eye test to detect possible problems early on and to correct your vision with the help of spectacles and contact lenses.

carrots night vision

Image credit: iStock

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