A 17-year-old boy whose primary diet consisted of junk food went blind from his poor eating habits, according to a new study.
The boy went to the doctor at age 14 complaining of tiredness, the Annals of Internal Medicine wrote in the study abstract. By the time his doctors discovered that nutrition was the probable cause for his symptoms, his vision was irrevocably damaged.
The case was reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed Annals of Internal Medicine, the flagship journal of the American College of Physicians, and described how the boy had been treated for health problems related to his poor eating habits since he was 14.
“His diet was essentially a portion of chips from the local fish and chip shop every day. He also used to snack on crisps – Pringles – and sometimes slices of white bread and occasional slices of ham, and not really any fruit and vegetables,” Dr. Denize Atan, who treated him at the hospital, told the BBC.
The boy’s family doctor first prescribed injections for him to treat a vitamin B12 deficiency and told him to change his diet when he came in reporting “tiredness,” but the boy did not keep with the treatment, nor did he change his diet, according to the case study.
The tests revealed that he has low levels of vitamin B12 and anemia, so he’s given B12 injections and diet advice. But a year later, he has begun to lose his vision. Then, by age 17, he’s legally blind.
It turns out that the boy’s highly limited daily diet — lacking in healthy foods, vitamins and minerals — had led to optic neuropathy. That’s the conclusion of researchers from the University of Bristol in England, who have published a case study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“This case highlights the impact of diet on visual and physical health, and the fact that calorie intake and BMI are not reliable indicators of nutritional status,” Dr. Denize Atan, the study’s lead author and a consultant senior lecturer in Ophthalmology at Bristol Medical School, said in a statement.
The boy was not over or underweight, but was severely malnourished from his eating disorder – avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder.
“He had lost minerals from his bone, which was really quite shocking for a boy of his age.”
He was put on vitamin supplements and referred to a dietitian and a specialist mental health team.
In terms of his sight loss, he met the criteria for being registered blind.
“He had blind spots right in the middle of his vision,” said Dr Atan. “That means he can’t drive and would find it really difficult to read, watch TV or discern faces.
“He can walk around on his own though because he has got peripheral vision.”
Nutritional optic neuropathy – the condition the young man has – is treatable if diagnosed early. Left too long, however, the nerve fibres in the optic nerve die and the damage becomes permanent.
Dr Atan said cases like this are thankfully uncommon, but that parents should be aware of the potential harm that can be caused by picky eating, and seek expert help.
The report said that cases like this could rise given the world’s reliance on processed foods, but they also pointed to veganism as a possible eroder of vitamin B12 levels, which could also lead to malnutrition.
There are roughly 2 billion people around the world who are subject to deficiencies in micronutrients, study co-author Denize Atan, an ophthalmologist at Bristol Medical School and Bristol Eye Hospital, told Newsweek, but health professionals tend to downplay or be unaware of the link between nutrition, diet and visual health.