If you choose to adopt a vegetarian diet, eating a wide variety of healthy plant-based foods will make it easier to meet your nutrition needs. Certain nutrients (such as protein, some minerals – especially iron, calcium and zinc – and vitamins B12 and D) can be harder to get in on a vegetarian diet, if not carefully planned. 

And that’s where nuts come in!

Eating a handful (30g) a day can go a long way towards helping vegetarians meet nutrient targets. Nutrients in nuts that are particularly important in a vegetarian diet include protein, iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3 fats.

The rise of vegetarianism

In Australia, there’s been a slow but steady rise in people adopting a vegetarian diet.

Recent, well-publicised studies, including from the EAT-Lancet Commission, suggest that transforming to healthy diets requires substantial shifts in our eating patterns across the globe.

According to the EAT-Lancet report, we need to more than double our consumption of healthy foods like nuts, fruit and vegetables, and legumes, and decrease intake of red meat, sugar, and refined grains (1).

And Australians may be getting the message.

A 2019 report revealed that 42 per cent of Australians said they were eating less meat, or none at all (2). Baby-boomers were leading the meat-reduction trend, whereas millennials were most likely to be vegetarians. In fact, the report found that 61 per cent of all vegetarians in Australia are millennials.

Why nuts really are a vegetarian’s best friend

Some nutrients require special attention in a vegetarian diet, and with the exception of vitamin B12 (which is only found in animal products), nuts can provide these nutrients. Here’s how:

Protein

  • Nuts contain plant protein, providing approximately 10-20g of protein per 100g. 
  • Protein has many vital roles in the body including growth and repair of cells, formation of enzymes and hormones, normal functioning of muscles and bones, transmission of nerve impulses and to protect the immune system. 

Iron

  • Nuts contain non-haem iron ranging from 1.8mg/100g in macadamias, up to 5mg/100g in cashews. 
  • Eating nuts with vitamin C rich foods will help to maximise the iron absorption. Iron is an essential mineral and plays an important role in forming haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body. 
  • Iron also assists in energy-producing chemical reactions and helps maintain a healthy immune system.   

Zinc

  • Nuts contain zinc, providing between 1.2mg (macadamias) and 5.5mg (cashews) per 100g. 
  • Zinc is required for reproduction, growth, wound healing, sexual maturation and for maintaining a healthy immune system. 

Calcium

  • Nuts can provide useful amounts of calcium, particularly almonds which have the highest calcium content at 265mg/100g. The calcium content of other nuts ranges from 11mg in pine nuts to 150mg in Brazil nuts. 
  • Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth and also plays a role in muscle contraction and relaxation, blood clotting, nerve function and regulation of blood pressure.

Omega-3 fats

  • Walnuts are one of the few plant sources of omega-3 fats, providing more than 6,000 mg of ALA per 100g. Smaller amounts are also found in pecans (620mg/100g), macadamias (200mg/100g) and hazelnuts (120mg/100g). 
  • After digestion, ALA is acted on by enzymes and converted to important fats that are used to regulate metabolism by acting as signals and altering cell membranes. 
  • Plant omega-3 ALA’s also play a role in heart health. 

Check out our article on plant-based protein.

References

  1. Willett, W., et al., Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 2019. 393(10170): 447-92.
  2. Colman Brunton research for Food Frontier and Life Health Foods. Hungry for plant based: Australian consumer insights. (2019) Available at: https://www.foodfrontier.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Hungry-For-Plant-Based-Australian-Consumer-Insights-Oct-2019.pdf
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