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. (D&C 89:12)
What might the instruction to eat meat “sparingly” mean? Here are some definitions of the word sparingly from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary:
1. Not abundantly.
2. Frugally; parsimoniously; not lavishly.
3. Abstinently; moderately.
4. Seldom; not frequently.
5. Cautiously; tenderly.
Given these definitions, I realized that I had already consumed so much meat in the first 50 years of life that if I never ate another piece of meat for the next 50 years, the average amount of meat I’d have consumed by the end of my life could never, as a whole, be considered “sparingly”! But as helpful as verse 12 is in helping us understand the role of meat in the Lord’s diet plan, the next verse in Section 89 gives us further insight into the Lord’s intent:
And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:13)
This is reiterated, perhaps even clarified, in verse 15:
And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (D&C 89:15)
The commonsense meaning of these verses is that we are asked to eat very little meat, and further that it “pleases the Lord” if we don’t eat meat at all except in times of need, as in times of cold or famine when plant foods are scarce and our survival may depend on eating any source of nutrients we can get. While the word sparingly certainly encompasses “not abundantly,” given verses 13 and 15, I wonder if in this context the word sparingly may mean as little as is needed.
If the Lord were to ask us to discipline our children sparingly, we would probably not assume that we had to discipline them at least a little, regardless of their behavior. We would not feel we had to punish them, at least a little, even if they were perfectly obedient. No, we would understand that we should discipline them as little as is needed and, when not needed, not at all.
We are instructed to eat meat sparingly, but we are further told that it is pleasing to the Lord that we not eat meat at all, except under certain conditions. While there have been several alternative explanations of verse 13 since the Word of Wisdom was revealed in 1833, so far none of them stand up to careful analysis. Maybe we should consider taking the Lord at His word.
Do We Need to Consume Animal Foods?
Why would the Word of Wisdom instruct us to avoid animal flesh as a featured part of our diet if, as we are taught, animal foods are an important part of a balanced diet? Where can we get the nutrients to be healthy and strong if we don’t regularly consume meat? Aren’t there certain nutrients we must get from animal foods in order for our bodies to function optimally? Aren’t meat and dairy two of the important food groups?
As we all know, the human body must have fuel to provide the energy needed for survival. Three macronutrients can provide energy: lipids (fats), proteins, and carbohydrates. In addition, micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are vital for a host of bodily functions on every level.
What I learned took me by surprise. I discovered that plant (not animal) foods are the original source of all of the essential macroand micronutrients the human body needs. Food science expert Harold McGee explains:
Unlike animals, plants can synthesize organic materials from the minerals, air, and sunlight, and so they are the true origin of the proteins, carbohydrates, and other complex molecules necessary to animal life.
Plants are the original source of all the dietary nutrients needed by our bodies:
- All the essential amino acids needed to build protein.
- All the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6).
- All carbohydrates (the human body’s preferred fuel source).
- All the required vitamins or building blocks needed to produce the vitamins (with the exception of vitamins B12 or D, neither of which—with very rare exception—is created by plants or animals).
- All the essential minerals (which plants absorb from the soil).
In addition, plants provide a rich abundance of other nutrients that produce optimal human health. For example,
- Phytochemicals, including antioxidants (thousands of phytochemicals function in various ways to fight disease and maintain health in our bodies).
- Fiber (essential for bodily functions, eliminating toxins, and healthy weight).
- Water (next to oxygen, the most essential element to life; food high in water helps cleanse the body and maintain healthy weight).
Not only do plants provide the nutrients needed for optimal health, they naturally provide these nutrients in the proportions needed by our bodies. Given the total number of calories required to build and fuel our bodies, we need no more than 10 percent of our calories from proteins and no more than 10 percent of our calories from fats, and most of us require even less. If we consume no animal foods and mostly low-fat whole plant foods, almost any plant-based diet (aside from an all-fruit diet) would still consist of at least 10 percent protein and 10 percent fat. In others words, assuming we are getting an adequate number of calories, plants naturally contain all of the proteins and fats we require for optimal health, without our having to go to special lengths to make sure we are getting enough in the right combinations. No wonder plants are ordained of God for the “constitution” and “nature” of His children (D&C 89:10).
A Backup Source of Nutrition
If plants provide all that is needed to not only sustain human life but also to optimize our health, what is the role of animal flesh in our diet? Like us, animals get their essential nutrients from plants. Even the carnivorous animals at the top of the food chain ultimately depend totally on plant foods, as plants are the beginning of the food chain. But like us, most animals can get all the nutrients they need for optimal health from a vegetarian diet. The largest land mammals on the planet (elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippopotamuses, and water buffalo) are all herbivores; they eat only plant foods. Humans are omnivores; we can get our nutrients from both plants and animals, but animal foods are completely optional for human nutrition. The fact that plants alone can nourish the largest, strongest land animals should help us understand how an allplant diet can grow and maintain our much smaller human bodies.
As animals eat plants, vital nutrients become part of their bodies. Therefore, in times of necessity, when we humans can’t get enough plants to sustain life (for example, in times of famine or excess cold when plants are scarce), we can eat animals as a backup source of nutrition. They have enough of the essential nutrients in their bodies, along with the needed calories, to sustain our lives in times of need.
However, eating animal foods comes at a price since the nutrients in them are not packaged ideally for regular human consumption. For example, when we get our nutrients from animal foods (including fish), we also get
- Too much cholesterol (the human body produces all the cholesterol we need to function optimally, so any animal cholesterol is in excess of our needs and large quantities can be detrimental to our health).
- Too much protein (extra animal protein forces our livers and kidneys to work harder to process the excess, increases the acid load in our bodies, and creates an environment more conducive to cancer growth).
- Too much fat (and usually the wrong types of fat—saturated fat instead of the healthier unsaturated fats, like omega 3).
- Too few of most essential nutrients: vitamins and minerals. Too much of some nutrients (like iron, which is more easily absorbed when packaged in animal foods, contributing to various chronic illnesses).
- No phytochemicals (“phyto” means plants; they help us maintain health).
- No carbohydrates, aside from lactose (100 percent of meat calories come from protein and fat).
- No dietary fiber (a lack of fiber in the diet promotes constipation and fatigue and diminishes healthy gut bacteria).
- Too many hormones, antibiotics, etc. (both natural hormones and drugs given to animals to make them grow fast and keep them from getting sick).
- Too many pollutants, microbes, pesticides, herbicides, etc. (these get concentrated in animal foods because they are higher-up on the food chain).
Plants contain all the advantages with none of these disadvantages. In short, animal foods are in no way more ideal for the human body than plant foods, but they are a good backup source of nutrition. Perhaps this is one reason the Lord ordained them for our “use” under certain conditions, but not for the “constitution” or “nature” of our bodies (D&C 89:10-13).
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Anyone who stops eating animal foods will soon discover that other people, even strangers, are suddenly concerned they are not consuming enough protein. People who know little about nutrition nevertheless know that our bodies require protein, that it must be “complete” (that is, contain all of the essential amino acids), and that animal flesh contains a high percent of complete protein. All of this is true. What most people do not know is that protein is so ubiquitous in plant foods that if you get a sufficient number of calories, it is almost impossible not to get enough protein, including all the essential amino acids. You do not need to pay attention to the amount and type of amino acids in the foods you eat.
Protein is essential to life, but like oxygen, it is so readily available we don’t need to worry about where we are going to get it. We can’t live for more than a few minutes without oxygen, but unlike aquatic mammals, we don’t store large quantities in our bodies because we are built for an environment with plenty of oxygen. Likewise, our bodies don’t store an excess of protein because they are built for an environment with plenty of protein. In fact, in our society we are more in danger of consuming too much protein than too little.
Furthermore, I learned that the idea that animal protein is superior to plant protein is a myth. Research indicates the opposite is true. Plant proteins are better for both the normal functioning of the human body and for warding off disease. Studies of human populations demonstrate a strong correlation between animal protein and a host of chronic diseases. While correlation is not causation, controlled studies indicate that animal protein is a causal factor in chronic illness. For example, cancer cells grow faster in a high animal protein environment. As T. Colin Campbell documents in The China Study, one can control the growth of cancer in rats by adjusting the percentage of animal protein in their diet. Vegetable protein does not have the same effect. Animals do not need to eat complete proteins for their health requirements; their bodies take the various amino acids from various plants to produce the precise combinations they need. Our human bodies do the same. We do not need animals to process our proteins any more than we need the food industry to process our carbs or our fats. Our bodies are built to process all the needed carbs, fats, and proteins from the original source of these nutrients: plants. Even when we eat animals, our bodies break down their amino acids and re-combine them for our use.
Since most Americans consume animal foods, it is no surprise that the typical American consumes far more protein (approximately 17 percent of calories) than is needed. Animal foods are also high in fat, and with the addition of highly processed plant foods, fat now constitutes an incredible 35 percent of calories in the average American diet. In the case of both fat and protein, consuming more than we need is not a bonus; in fact, it can be harmful to our health, not to mention our waistlines. Every modern society that has seen an increase in the amount of protein and fat in their diets has seen a concomitant rise in chronic illness of every kind. More is not better. More is killing us.
Should We Never Eat Animals?
Despite the problems with animal foods, they can be lifesaving in times of need, just as the Lord ordained. Think of Lehi and his family eating raw meat in the wilderness as they travelled to the promised land or a pioneer family killing a buffalo as they crossed the plains. Animal foods provide a backup source of nutrition in times of necessity, and in these times we should use them “with thanksgiving,” as the Word of Wisdom admonishes.
I don’t call myself a “vegan” because my focus is not just on avoiding animal foods; my focus is on eating the foods that are best for my body. I don’t believe I’m condemned if I eat some animal foods, whether by mistake or as a rare choice. And, because of the Word of Wisdom, I’m glad to know God ordained animals to save my life in case of need. I’d be supremely grateful to eat meat to keep from starvation or even severe hunger, but in all my life this has never been the reason I have ever eaten even a single piece of meat. I have always had plenty and enough to spare, with modern heating and clothing to prevent me from truly experiencing winter or cold, and with enough grocery stores, refrigerators, and restaurants to make food far too plentiful for optimal health. I’m grateful now to refrain from eating meat when there is no need, knowing this is pleasing to the Lord. I believe the Word of Wisdom is also telling me this is best for my body. Surprisingly, it took science to help me see and appreciate these words of wisdom.
Regardless of exactly how we interpret the Word of Wisdom, D&C 89 clearly comes down strongly on the “low-protein” side of the nutritional debate. Plenty of high-protein proponents, both before and after Robert Atkins, have claimed that science is on their side. No amount of evidence contrary to their position seems to dissuade them. To the layperson, the scientific evidence may seem inconclusive, but I believe the Word of Wisdom helps us sort fact from fiction. The Atkins diet and other high-protein or low-carbohydrate diets may help some people lose weight (as almost any diet will), but they don’t measure up to the standard set by the Word of Wisdom. Therefore, I give more credence to the substantial amount of scientific evidence (see Appendix Seven) that concludes such diets have a significantly negative effect on our health in the long run. I don’t want to gamble on my health by betting against the Word of Wisdom.
Keeping the Word of Wisdom
Let me state here for the record that I do not think Latter-day Saints must avoid eating all meat in order to “keep the Word of Wisdom.” The Lord’s servants have defined obedience to the Word of Wisdom as abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, illegal drugs, and habit-forming substances. This book is not about changing this definition. I whole-heartedly sustain this standard, which I believe has been set by divine inspiration. I am in no position to propose (nor do I desire to campaign) that the standard be changed. According to my understanding, all who abstain from these harmful substances are “keeping the Word of Wisdom” as far as what we have been asked to do.
What I do suggest is that the Lord gives us much more advice in Section 89 that can also bless our lives. The blessings promised in D&C 89 apply to all the counsel given in that section of scripture, not just to the prohibitions. In a sense, there are two meanings to the phrase Word of Wisdom. One is the standard the Church has set for worthiness to become a member of the LDS Church and remain worthy to participate in all the ordinances. The other refers to the totality of guidance given in D&C 89. Both meanings are commonly used among Latter-day Saints. Please keep in mind that in this book when I refer to the Word of Wisdom, I am using the broader meaning, but I do not confuse that broader meaning with the narrower, more important, standard set by Church leaders.
Notes to Chapter 2
1. Webster’s Dictionary (1828), s.v. “sparingly,” http://machaut.uchicago.edu/websters. All further references to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary come from this site.
2. This is based on research I’ve done on D&C 89:13 by analyzing the literature on the Word of Wisdom from 1833 to 2013. My conclusions are summarized in two manuscripts (submitted for publication in 2013): “Questioning the Comma in the Word of Wisdom” and “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom.”
3. Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), 123.
4. Vitamin D requires sunlight, and Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria. B12 is found in most animal foods (from the bacteria in the gut of the animal), but it is largely absent from our plant foods, partly due to modern sanitation. Current science suggests that people who abstain from all animal foods should take a B12 supplement. People who do not get enough sunlight to produce enough Vitamin D may also consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
5. T. Colin Campbell, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (New York: BenBella Books, 2013), 254.
6. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, Keep It Simple, Keep It Whole: Your Guide to Optimum Health (Los Angeles: Exsalus Health & Wellness Center, 2009). See chapter 8, “Protein” and chapter 11, “Fats and Oils.”
7. Unfortunately, fish is not a healthier form of animal flesh. Fish generally have all the same drawbacks as any other form of flesh, and they are often much higher in contaminants. See, for example, John A. McDougall, “Fish is Not Health Food,” (February 2003), http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/030200pufishisnothealthfood.htm. Some fish is higher in omega 3, but we can get the omega 3 we need from plants, without the cholesterol, saturated fat, and contaminants.
8. You can test the amount of amino acids (along with fats and carbohydrates) in foods yourself using the handy nutrition calculator at http://cronometer.com.
9. Campbell and Campbell, The China Study, chapter 3.
10. Compare, for example, the China described by Campbell in The China Study with the chronic exposion of diabetes described by Yu Xu, et al. in “Prevalence and Control of Diabetes in Chinese Adults” (Journal of the American Medical Association 30, no. 9 (September 4,2013): 948-958.China now has the highest rate of diabetes in the world.
Handbook 2: Administering the Church, Section 21.3.11, “Word of Wisdom” (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010).