By: Jane Birch
I’d always pitied vegetarians. Vegans were beyond comprehension. It would be awful enough to give up meat, but why would anyone give up butter, cheese—or worse, ice cream?! Is life worth living without feta cheese or Rocky Road? So, imagine my surprise when on August 20, 2011, I suddenly became so convinced of the health hazards of eating animal foods that I gave them up completely, with no thought (not even a desire) of eating them again. Several months later I was chatting with my nephew, Christian Lloyd. He began eating a vegetarian diet as a young teen (and yes, I had pitied him). He asked me, “Before you stopped eating meat, what did you think of those verses in the Word of Wisdom?” I knew exactly which verses he meant:
Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:12–13)
It was true that as many times as I had read these verses, they had failed to impact how I ate. Nevertheless I told my nephew, “I thought the same way I think now: these verses seem clear and unambiguous—why doesn’t anyone talk about them?”
My Longing to “Run and Not Be Weary”
I’ve always loved the Word of Wisdom, but its promised blessings became particularly meaningful to me after I began experiencing severe, sometimes crippling pain in my legs in the year 2000. I prayed long and hard to find an answer. I went to every type of medical and alternative health specialist I could find. During the years that followed, I sometimes felt better, but the pain never went away. How I longed for the blessing promised in the Word of Wisdom to “run and not be weary” and “walk and not faint” (D&C 89:20). In fact, this particular phrase went through my mind over and over again during long years of wondering if I’d ever walk freely again.
I decided to devote the summer of 2011 to finding a solution to the pain in my legs. I ended up seeing several medical specialists, and on July 20, 2011, I finally got my answer. On that day I learned I have a congenital condition called developmental dysplasia of the hip. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the only solution was major hip surgery.
I had no idea I’d be so unhappy to get my answer. I would have done anything, short of surgery, to try to correct the problem. I was willing to follow any type of diet, physical therapy, meditation, or exercise (even yoga!). I didn’t want to believe that none of these solutions addressed my problem, nor did I want to feel stuck with an answer that made me very unhappy. There was just no way I was going to have surgery!
Once I got the diagnosis, my life was consumed with coming to grips with what I was learning. My effort to find an answer so occupied my attention that I spent little time thinking of anything else.
An Answer to a Question I Did Not Ask
Exactly one month to the day after being diagnosed, I suddenly received an answer to a question I did not ask, one that was not even on my radar screen. It was Saturday, August 20, 2011. I woke up much earlier than usual and went into the living room where my good friend, Abbie Kim, had the TV on and tuned to CNN. If she hadn’t been there that morning, I would never have seen the preview for a program Dr. Sanjay Gupta was doing called “The Last Heart Attack.”
A few moments into this preview, I learned that Dr. Gupta was investigating a “heart-attack proof ” diet, which sounded very strange to me. At first I thought he’d be debunking some quack idea because it seemed impossible that a person could become literally “heart-attack proof,” but after watching the preview I realized Dr. Gupta was serious. Based on his research, he asserted there is a diet that can prevent heart disease. This was interesting to me, not because I had any risk factors for heart disease, but because I’d often heard it is the number one killer in America, that one out of every two men and one out of every three women will suffer from heart disease. What if we could eliminate heart disease in America through diet? What would that save us in money, in suffering, and premature death? This grabbed my attention. It was still very early on a Saturday morning, but I was now wide awake.
After a big breakfast that totally contradicted the advice Dr. Gupta had just shared, I started researching the diet on the Internet, beginning with the doctor featured in the CNN preview, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic. I quickly found plenty of solid information and was surprised that it looked much more compelling than I had expected. I was especially impressed that (just as the CNN preview suggested) there appeared to be specific and reliable scientific and clinical evidence that the featured diet doesn’t just reduce our chance of getting heart disease, but actually eliminates it. This impressed me. It is not easy to make big changes, and I do not feel very motivated to make dramatic lifestyle changes when it only reduces my chances of having problems; it feels like a gamble. Eliminating my chance of getting a disease, especially the number one killer, felt very motivating to me.
Equally important, I soon learned that the recommended diet does much more than make us “heart-attack proof.” I was astounded to learn that by eating a “heart-attack proof ” diet, I could also drastically reduce or (in many cases) eliminate my chance of ever having to deal with most of the other chronic problems common on our society:
|Arthritis (AS, gout, psoriatic, rheumatoid)||Diabetes||Hypertension|
|Atherosclerosis (heart disease, carotid artery disease, strokes)||Diverticulitis||Kidney disease|
|Asthma||Erectile dysfunction||Kidney stones|
|Cancers (colon, breast, uterus, ovary, kidney, prostate)||Gallstones||Multiple sclerosis|
|Cataracts & macular degeneration||Gastritis (ulcers)||Obesity|
|Colitis (Crohn’s, ulcerative)||Hearing loss||Osteoporosis|
|Dementia (Alzheimer’s, cognitive dysfunction)||Hiatus hernia||Varicose veins|
Up to this point in my life, I hadn’t thought much about becoming chronically ill; I just assumed we’d all end up with one or more of these diseases during our lifetimes, especially as we get older. I hadn’t spent much time worrying about them since eventual poor health seemed inevitable. I figured I’d “cross that bridge” when I got there. But now the thought of living my life with a dramatically reduced chance of ever getting any of these diseases sounded pretty good. I started to consider what type of lifestyle change would NOT be worth these results. I started to think about what good health is worth to me. I thought about a very prominent, extremely wealthy man in our community who suffered from diabetes and heart disease. With all the money and power he had, he was not able to save his legs from amputation, or then even his own life, though he suffered from chronic diseases that could have been prevented through diet. He was just 64 years old.
Of course I was interested in exactly what the diet included and excluded. I learned it is called a “whole food, plant-based” (WFPB) diet. “Whole food” means very limited or no processed foods (including refined oils). “Plant-based” means meals based on plant rather than animal foods (which include meat, dairy, and eggs). What it includes are four food groups: unprocessed vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), and whole grains. In other words, whole plants, packaged as God (or nature) designed them.
The evidence backing how this diet leads to the results it claims was surprisingly convincing to me as I realized there is a direct link between the way we eat and how well our bodies function. Food is obviously the most intimate contact we have with our environment; we consume several pounds of food day in and day out. How could food not have a dramatic impact on our health?
I learned that Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn worked with patients with severe coronary artery disease, 100 percent of whom were able to stop or even reverse the progression of their disease when following this diet. Since his initial study, he has worked with hundreds of additional patients, all with the same results. Likewise, people following this same diet (whether under the care of a doctor or on their own) have successfully and consistently stopped and even reversed the progression of other diet-related chronic illnesses.
The combined evidence for this line of thinking, from even my brief study that Saturday morning, had an unpredictable effect on me. Within a relatively short amount of time (less than a few hours after watching the CNN preview), I came to the astonishing conclusion that, based on my evaluation of the evidence, I had better change my entire way of eating. For lunch that same day I began eating a WFPB diet. My first meal? Fresh corn on the cob sans butter. It was delicious, even without the extra fat. I was overjoyed. I was off to a great start!
Learning to Live with a New Diet
In my excitement over discovering new truths, it took a little time to realize what a radical effect this dietary change would have on my daily life. What I had not considered was my total lack of culinary skills. If I didn’t even know how to cook “normal” food, how could I ever cook this strange stuff ?! Being single and not having to cook for a family had made it easy for me (as it is for most Americans) to get by on convenient, readily available foods. The few foods I did make were quick and easy and tasted good because our modern food culture makes this incredibly simple.
All this changed dramatically with my new diet. I slowly realized that if I stuck to the diet, my food consumption from here on out would be entirely my own responsibility. Before this, I confess I occasionally sponged off of kind souls who were more than willing to feed me. But no one I knew cooked like this, and we certainly don’t have many WFPB restaurants in Utah County! Now, I’d have to prepare nearly everything I ate, and I couldn’t rely on the easy shortcuts our society has created to make yummy food creation a painless process. Without the refined foods, sugars, and fats of my past diet, figuring out how to make “whole food” taste good soon became a big challenge. Fortunately, I felt so committed to giving this my best try that even days of eating far-less-than-yummy foods did not make me want to give up.
During the next few weeks, I definitely was NOT enjoying my new diet. People who had been eating this way for years told me that my taste buds would change. I tried to imagine I could learn to cook. I tried not to think about food tasting like this for the rest of my life and instead focused on getting through the next few months while I figured things out.
Through reading online forums, I got to know some of the many people who eat this way. I discovered they truly enjoy their food and are experiencing the promised weight loss and increased energy and good health. In reading their stories, I couldn’t doubt their sincerity. Their food tastes had changed. It was obvious they relished their new foods with the same joy I had always gotten from eating. And, without all the added fat, sugar, and processed foods, they felt they could (for the first time) truly savor the subtle, delicious flavors of whole plant foods. They also appreciated a diet that did not make them count calories or stop eating before they were full. With this diet, you can eat as much as you need (to satiety), never go hungry, and still lose excess weight.
I quickly found hundreds of recipes to support this diet. I tried many. They all failed. While others loved the food, I did not. I was now eating food to stay alive but not for enjoyment or pleasure. I did feel great after every meal, never weighed down or heavy. I had energy, and I felt strong and healthy. I was losing weight. But I was discouraged. I was committed to the diet, but I wanted it to be easy, and it was not.
The Evidence Mounts, and I Share My Enthusiasm
Over the next few weeks, I continued to study the new diet. The first book I read was The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. In this tour de force on nutrition and diet, Campbell presents not only the “most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted,” but also the results of hundreds of other mainstream scientific studies, all with the same compelling conclusion: the unquestionable benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet. It didn’t take even a full chapter to convince me. I was sold.
The more I researched, the more impressed I became. This excitement is unusual for me. We all hear about “miracle” cures, wonder nutrients, and super foods. I’ve been tempted to get excited about a few of the pitches, but I have always listened with a grain of salt, knowing that most such miracles do not work better than placebos and are not backed by solid science. Others work for some but not for everyone. Most contradict each other and make the whole subject of health and nutrition confusing and discouraging.
We’ve all heard from people who are overly passionate about this or that supplement or super food: acai berries, wheatgrass, cold-pressed coconut oil, probiotics, krill oil, CoQ10, etc. We are regularly bombarded with news of health-altering wonder nutrients, and I’m sure they all have their merits, but the WFPB diet felt very different. This struck me as transparently and unambiguously true. It was not gimmicky; it rang true to history, science, and common sense; no one stood to make money by converting me to it; and I couldn’t help but notice it resonated with truths that were already an important part of who I am: the truths found in the Word of Wisdom.
Things began falling into place once I realized that as I used the principles of this diet as the large, foundational building blocks, all other nutrition facts finally began to make sense. In fact, learning these principles helped me better understand all competing claims and make sense out of the seeming confusion. I was beginning to see the forest for the trees. It was thrilling!
Like any new convert, I wanted to share what I was learning with others. I knew I had discovered hidden treasures—treasures “hidden” in plain sight. I became eager to let others know there are jewels lying all around us, enough for everyone to scoop up by the dozens. But these treasures are much more valuable than diamonds and pearls because they promise “health in their navel and marrow to their bones . . . wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (D&C 89:19).
In my enthusiasm, I began a campaign to help friends, family, and colleagues at work learn about a whole food, plant-based diet. I wanted them to understand the basic principles before they or someone they loved experienced chronic illness. I hoped they’d feel even a part of the joy I was feeling as my understanding of diet and nutrition rapidly expanded. I shared my enthusiasm with everyone who would listen.
For myself, somewhere between week seven and eight I suddenly realized I was enjoying my food! I can’t be sure whether it was my taste buds changing or my cooking improving. Maybe it had just been so long since I had had lasagna or cheesecake that I forgot what “good” food tastes like. No matter. I began thoroughly enjoying three very large meals a day. I looked forward to eating; I ate with relish; and I felt fully satisfied after every meal. I had plenty of tasty whole food, plant-based snacks when I wanted them. I didn’t count carbs or calories. I felt fantastic!
Other than the congenital hip condition, I didn’t have any major health issues when I started the diet, but I did hope to lose weight. After high school I had gradually put on 45 pounds of unneeded weight (fat, not muscle!). In 2005, I started to cut back on calories to keep from ballooning out any further, and I very slowly began to lose weight. Over the next six years (between 2005 and the time I started this diet in 2011), I lost 20 pounds. After starting this diet, I lost 15 pounds in 12 weeks and 25 pounds in seven months (going from a BMI of 24 to 20). All without going hungry!
Of course, many others have started this diet much heavier and with serious, sometimes even chronic, diseases. The stories of how their health turned around dramatically in even a few short months are eye-opening and inspiring. My story is much less dramatic. I had my cholesterol tested at the three-month mark. My total cholesterol and LDL levels (originally 199 and 137) had both dropped 32 percent. My total cholesterol is now 130 and is in the “ideal” range (<150), a range that is common in populations where heart disease (and cancer) is nearly non-existent. When I had my carotid arteries checked in 2012, I was told they look like someone half my age. All of the small health issues I had also disappeared: a saliva gland that had been blocked for 10 years, annoyingly dry eyes, extremely itchy spots on my body, leg cramps at night, and occasional constipation. Since changing my diet, I feel great, enjoy plenty of energy, and am finally sleeping well.
Here is how I figure: I enjoyed plenty of meat and junk foods during the first half of my life. Now, I can enjoy different foods and better health the second half of my life. After all, what is health worth? And what have I really given up? I eat lots of delicious food, which I thoroughly enjoy. It is less expensive to buy and will save me in healthcare dollars in the future. In addition, I have the opportunity to share something precious with others, and maybe one day I’ll have the privilege of making a difference in the health of another person. I have lost little and gained much.
I have thought a lot about why I made such a radical change that day in August. This diet was not an answer to a question I had. I had no known risk factors for any major illness. I was feeling healthy at the time, and I was eating as sensibly as (or more sensibly than) most people. God answered a prayer I did not give. But when I learned that by simply eating differently, I could prevent most of the chronic diseases so common in our society, I quickly decided that no amount of sacrifice in my diet was too dramatic. I had just endured more than a decade of pain; I knew what that had cost me in money, time, worry, social isolation, disability, and distress. I know we cannot avoid all suffering in this life—that is not part of God’s plan. But since God had just given me an answer that promised dramatically better health, there was just no way that I was going to ignore it.
What I was not expecting when I made that decision was to discover that everything I was now learning about good health and nutrition was already contained in a document that was very familiar to me—Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Word of Wisdom.
My primary task in this book is to explore how a whole food, plant-based diet helps us better understand the counsel given in D&C 89. In doing so, I’ll present the scientific facts that seem clear and noncontroversial to me (though I know they are controversial to others). But I also need to explain that this book will not attempt to make the scientific argument for a whole food, plant-based diet. This has been done very well elsewhere. There is a substantial body of research, published in peer-reviewed journals, to support almost every scientific claim in this book. In my personal study, I often go to these original research articles to verify the claims of the experts I read. But because this body of literature is so vast and my primary goal is not to establish the scientific case, in this book I usually cite the secondary research of whole food, plant-based experts rather than the peer-reviewed literature itself. Interested readers can easily locate a substantial amount of primary research through the many citations in the books I reference. I encourage readers to make this a serious subject of investigation, should this interest them (see Appendix Seven, especially The China Study).
Notes to Chapter 1
1. My experience is not shared by all who adopt this diet. I’ve since discovered that learning to cook and enjoy this food is not necessarily a major obstacle. Many people enjoy the food from the start, and everyone seems to love it before too long.
2. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health (Dallas: Benbella, 2006).