How A Junk Food Diet Caused Blindness In A Teen – Forbes

A British teen’s diet consisted of fries, Pringles, white bread, processed ham slices, and sausage. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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Not everyone may see the risks of a junk food diet. Here’s a case of a British teen who had trouble seeing because he ate too much junk food and too little of anything else.

In the most recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Rhys Harrison, Vicki Warburton, PhD, Andrew Lux, PhD, and Denize Atan, PhD from the University Hospitals Bristol in the UK told the story of a “fussy eater.” The story began when the then-14-year-old “fussy eater” saw his family doc due to “tiredness.” At the time, tests had indicated that he had low vitamin B12 and red blood cell levels (i.e., anemia).

Now you may say that your child is a “fussy eater” or that you are or were a “fussy eater” as a child. After all, up to nearly a quarter of kids (13% to 22%, according to a publication in the journal Eating Behaviors, for example) are  reportedly “picky eaters.” Ah, but there are different levels of “fussiness.” There’s a difference between not wanting to eat your Brussels sprout-asparagus-turnip casserole, and this teen’s diet. Apparently, since elementary school, he had insisted on only eating foods that had “certain textures,” which meant regularly eating French fries, Pringles potato chips, white bread, processed ham slices, and sausage. As you can see fries, Pringles, and white bread do not appear on the following list of vitamin B12-rich foods, provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

Food Micrograms (mcg)
per serving
Percent DV*
Clams, cooked, 3 ounces 84.1 1,402
Liver, beef, cooked, 3 ounces 70.7 1,178
Nutritional yeasts, fortified with 100% of the DV for vitamin B12, 1 serving 6.0 100
Trout, rainbow, wild, cooked, 3 ounces 5.4 90
Salmon, sockeye, cooked, 3 ounces 4.8 80
Trout, rainbow, farmed, cooked, 3 ounces 3.5 58
Tuna fish, light, canned in water, 3 ounces 2.5 42
Cheeseburger, double patty and bun, 1 sandwich 2.1 35
Haddock, cooked, 3 ounces 1.8 30
Breakfast cereals, fortified with 25% of the DV for vitamin B12, 1 serving 1.5 25
Beef, top sirloin, broiled, 3 ounces 1.4 23
Milk, low-fat, 1 cup 1.2 18
Yogurt, fruit, low-fat, 8 ounces 1.1 18
Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce 0.9 15
Beef taco, 1 soft taco 0.9 15
Ham, cured, roasted, 3 ounces 0.6 10
Egg, whole, hard boiled, 1 large 0.6 10
Chicken, breast meat, roasted, 3 ounces 0.3 5

Therefore, the doctor recommended vitamin B12 injections and changing his diet. The goal was to help the teen reach the recommended daily allowances (RDA) for vitamin B12:

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
0–6 months* 0.4 mcg 0.4 mcg
7–12 months* 0.5 mcg 0.5 mcg
1–3 years 0.9 mcg 0.9 mcg
4–8 years 1.2 mcg 1.2 mcg
9–13 years 1.8 mcg 1.8 mcg
14+ years 2.4 mcg 2.4 mcg 2.6 mcg 2.8 mc

Assuming that he was not pregnant or lactating, the British male teen should have gotten at least 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 each day. As you can see from the first table above, there are a number of options to satisfy this daily amount, especially if you clam up, so to speak.

Clams top the list of the NIH’s vitamin B12-rich foods. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

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However, things didn’t improve and instead got worse. At age 15, the teen started having difficulty hearing and visited an otolaryngologist. An exam, though, did not reveal the source of the problem. Soon thereafter, he began experiencing problems seeing as well, yet an eye exam by an ophthalmologist was normal.

But in Yoda-speak, normal, things were not. The teen’s vision got progressively worse over the ensuing two years. Finally, at age 17, he underwent an exam by a neuro-ophthalmologist, which showed that the teen’s vision in each eye had decreased to 20/200. If this visual loss could not be corrected, it would qualify for the definition of blindness provided by the American Foundation for the Blind: “A visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better-seeing eye with best conventional correction (meaning with regular glasses or contact lenses).”

The authors did use “blindness” in the case report’s headline. which read, “Blindness Caused by a Junk Food Diet.” Plus, they reported that the teen had developed blind spots in both eyes and deterioration of the nerves in his retina, deficiencies that aren’t readily correctable by glasses or contact lenses.

The following test results also caught the eye of the doctor: low level of Vitamin B12 as well as low copper, selenium, and Vitamin D. Of note, the teen’s bone mineral density was also low for his age, which is not surprising given the low Vitamin D levels. His height (172.9 cm), weight (65.7 kg), and body mass index (BMI) were all within normal range, though.

It turns out that the teen had not been getting his Vitamin B12 injections and had basically maintained the same diet. In this segment of This Morning, one of the co-authors of the case report, Dr. Atan describes how not taking more aggressive corrective action sooner may have cost the teen a fair amount of his eyesight:

She emphasized that when one nutritional deficiency is detected, other nutritional deficiencies are likely present and levels should be checked. It isn’t as if Pringles and white bread are just deficient in vitamin B12 but rich in everything else.

Not getting enough vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin B12 (cobalamin), or copper can lead to nutritional optic neuropathy. “Optic” means “of or relating to the eye or sight.” The prefix “neuro” stands for nerve, and the suffix “-pathy” means refers to disease of that particular part of the body. Thus, “nutritional optic neuropathy” is when nutritional deficiencies lead to deterioration or a disease of the nerves that help you see.  

His doctor then prescribed nutritional supplements and referred him to mental health services to address his eating issues. While the teen’s vision subsequently did not get worse, it also did not improve, suggesting that this vision loss may unfortunately be permanent.

Losing eyesight due to nutritional deficiencies is probably still relatively rare in higher income countries. That’s why this teen’s story became a case report in a medical journal. Medical journals don’t typically include very common occurrences as case reports. You don’t usually see case reports entitled: “Teen Ate Too Many Potato Chips And Then Felt Like Garbage,” or “Teen Consumed Many Cans of Chili, Farting And Diarrhea Resulted.”

Nevertheless, this case is a reminder of why junk food is called junk food and not full-of-nutrients-food. Just because you eat something besides fries, Pringles, white bread, processed ham slices, and sausage, doesn’t mean that you are in the clear. In fact, just because your weight and height remain in the normal ranges doesn’t mean that junk food isn’t harming your body. In other words, you can’t always see what a junk food diet is doing to you.

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