by Jane Birch
This article is the first in an on-going series in Meridian Magazine on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see “Discovering the Word of Wisdom.”
In a church chock full of commandments, the occasional “freebie”—something totally easy to obey—is especially welcome. As a lifelong member of the Church, that is how I viewed the Word of Wisdom. I was sure I had it down pat. I’ve never even been tempted by a forbidden substance.
Then suddenly, without warning, my understanding of the Word of Wisdom was almost instantly transformed, and I discovered there is so much more to this wise counsel than I had ever learned in Primary. As a result, I have also discovered the joy of fully embracing all of God’s counsel.
A “Heart-Attack Proof” Diet
My enlightenment took place early one Saturday morning in August 2011, when I happened to hear Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigating a “heart-attack proof” diet on CNN. I had no risk factors for heart disease or any other chronic disease, but I was intrigued by the thought that the #1 killer in America could be stopped dead in its tracks through proper diet. I had to learn more.
I went straight to work, digging up facts on the diet, which was described as “whole food, plant-based.” It quickly became clear that it was not as outrageous, and was even more powerful, than I first thought. Not only is the diet known to prevent and reverse heart disease, it has also proven effective in preventing and reversing many of the other chronic diseases we’ve just assumed would strike most of us at some point or other, such as diabetes, strokes, digestive disorders, obesity, and many cancers.
Chronic Disease Is Largely Preventable
There they were: study after study demonstrating that most chronic diseases are not the inevitable fate of the human race, but rather the natural consequence of what we put into our mouths every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This information was new to me. If most disease is preventable, why do more than 90 million Americans live with chronic illness, which accounts for 70 percent of deaths and 75 percent of medical care costs? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that
Chronic diseases—such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis—are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems in the U.S. . . . 7 out of 10 deaths among Americans each year are from chronic diseases.
Note the top three causes of death in America:
- Tobacco use
- Poor diet and physical inactivity
- Alcohol consumption
Latter-day Saints have #1 and #3 down pretty well, but despite the wisdom revealed in D&C 89, can anyone argue our diet is significantly better than the average American’s? We certainly enjoy lower rates of many diseases, thanks to not using alcohol and tobacco, but our rate of some diet-related diseases like diabetes appears to be higher, and our obesity rate is significantly higher. If we adopted a healthier Word of Wisdom-based diet and increased our physical activity, might we be equally protected against many more diseases?
Faint echoes of the promises in the Word of Wisdom began to emerge:
I, the Lord, give unto them [all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings] a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. (D&C 89:18, 21)
More on this later . . .
What Is a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet?
The whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet I discovered on CNN is simple, yet dramatically different from my daily fare at the time. “Plant-based” means foods from plants rather than animals. “Whole foods” are plants as they are when they are harvested from the ground or the trees, before they are transformed in factories into highly processed substances never seen on a farm.
Here are the three main principles of a whole food, plant-based diet:
1. Whole, relatively non-processed plants are the foundation of good health. They are the powerhouses of nutrition, beautifully designed to fuel our bodies.
2. Animal foods are not needed for nutritional purposes and unavoidably contain substances that can be harmful. They should be kept to a minimum, if eaten at all, for optimal health.
3. The bulk of our calories should come from starchy plants, which are primarily grains, such as wheat, barley, oats, rice, and millet. These are the foods that have fueled large, healthy populations throughout history.
If this diet sounds dramatic, consider that eating this way can eliminate up to 80-90 percent of all chronic disease. Is suffering from heart disease, diabetes, or a stroke any less “dramatic”? Would eating a diet that helps us achieve optimal health and our ideal weight, and that protects us from most chronic disease, not be worth some effort?
Evidence the Diet Works
If I was going to change my diet, I wanted solid evidence that a whole food, plant-based plan would deliver. Here are just a few of the facts I found compelling:
- In populations of the world (past and present) where the food is generally whole food, plant-based, the incidence of non-communicable chronic disease is ridiculously low.
- People who move from such areas of the world to the U.S. and adopt a more American diet start to develop the same chronic diseases as Americans. The same thing is happening to entire nations as they introduce more meat, dairy, and processed foods into their diets. Clearly, genes alone do not determine our health.
- Cardiovascular injury can be scientifically measured after only one fat-filled American meal. Imagine the damage done by three meals a day, 365 days a year! Scientists tell us that even our children now show early signs of beginning cardiovascular disease.
- People with chronic disease who adopt a WFPB diet quickly experience dramatic changes in their health and are often able to dispense with former medications and recover their vitality.
- Even people with advanced chronic disease are able to halt, and in many cases reverse, the progression of disease when adopting a WFPB diet. No other diet, for example, has been proven to have this effect on cardiovascular disease.
Connection to the Word of Wisdom
As impressive as all of the foregoing was, the clincher for me was opening the Doctrine and Covenants to section 89 and re-reading those familiar verses. After understanding the power of a WFPB diet, I found myself reading this section with a very different perspective. To my amazement, I realized the Word of Wisdom also consists of three simple dietary principles, principles that precisely parallel the three WFPB principles listed above:
1. “All wholesome herbs [i.e., plants] God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving” (vss. 10, 11, emphasis added).
I guess I had never thought about the word “wholesome” or considered that the intense modern processing of plants, which strips them of many of their nutrients, may not be what the Lord has in mind. Stripping plants of their nutrients does not sound very prudent.
2. “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” (vss. 12, 13, emphasis added).
Oh yes, I had seen these verses before, but since no one ever talked about them, I assumed they could be safely ignored. But why exactly would I want to ignore something that “pleases” the Lord?
3. “All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth; And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger” (vss. 14, 15).
In a day when grains, particularly wheat, are under a surprising amount of criticism, I’m thankful for the Lord’s words to help evaluate the evidence. I also noticed the additional emphasis on saving animal flesh for times of need: “only in times of famine and excess of hunger.” I wondered why the clarity of this phrase had never struck me before.
In short, I was impressed by the discovery that the diet modern science shows can prevent and reverse chronic disease is the very diet the Lord gave to Joseph Smith in 1833!
I Make My Decision
My study of the health benefits of a WFPB diet and the way it amazingly matches the counsel in the Word of Wisdom had a powerful impact on me. I can well remember the impression that came to my mind: “This is the way we humans are supposed to be eating. I had better eat this way.” If people had told me I would someday be convinced to give up all junk food, much less animal foods, I would have thought they were crazy. The strange thing is, this change of diet turned out to be no sacrifice at all. I can testify that changing my diet has been one of the most joyful adventures I have ever experienced.
Although I didn’t have any serious diet-related health issues when I started this new way of eating, the change in my health was nonetheless dramatic (at least to me). First, I quickly lost all of the remaining excess weight I had put on since high school (some 25 pounds). My total cholesterol went from a borderline 199 to 130 (a level at which heart disease is practically non-existent). In addition, all of the small, annoying health issues I’d simply dealt with disappeared (good riddance)! I felt great, I enjoyed plenty of energy, and I finally began sleeping well. Beyond these physical blessings, however, I am even more grateful for the distinct spiritual blessings I have received—including a much greater appreciation for this beautiful earth our Savior created, an enhanced receptivity to the Spirit, and a marked increase in feelings of peace and joy.
Two Meanings of the Phrase “Word of Wisdom”
I feel I should break here to make an important clarification. I realize now from experience that some people feel threatened by the idea that a careful reading of D&C 89 might suggest they may not be “keeping the Word of Wisdom” after all, so I need to be clear: I think it means nothing of the sort!
We commonly use the phrase “Word of Wisdom” in two very distinct ways in the Church. The first is plainly the most important. Our Church leaders have determined that the standard of worthiness for keeping the Word of Wisdom is abstaining from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and harmful drugs. I fully sustain this standard, and I want to be clear that I believe anyone abstaining from these substances is fully keeping the Word of Wisdom and is fully worthy of the privileges contingent on obedience to this important commandment.
But there is a second way we commonly use the phrase “Word of Wisdom” in the Church, and that is in reference to the entire text of section 89 in the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains much more wisdom, advice, and blessings than are covered in the few prohibitions. This is the meaning of the phrase “Word of Wisdom” I’m using in this article.
Who May Benefit from This Counsel?
If you are fully satisfied with the blessings you have obtained by obeying the Word of Wisdom according to the Church’s worthiness standard, and if you are fully satisfied with your health and do not anticipate having to deal with any of the chronic diseases that can make life so very challenging, this article may not be useful to you.
This article is for those who desire increased physical or spiritual blessings and are intrigued by the amazing promises given in D&C 89, promises that pertain to following all of the wise counsel in this beautiful section. These other verses may not be “commandments,” but we don’t need to be commanded in all things in order to receive blessings; we can do things of our own free will (see D&C 58:26-27). I simply offer some ideas to consider.
I am not suggesting that every Mormon must be vegetarian, nor would I ever insist anyone must abstain from all meat and processed foods. That is a personal decision each person must consider, given our own understanding of what is appropriate. It is not our place to judge one another or to forbid anyone from eating certain foods (see also 1 Timothy 4:3; D&C 49:18; and Romans 14). God does not forbid us from eating meat. In fact, He has ordained the flesh of animals for our use—but only under certain circumstances.
If it is pleasing to Him that we reserve the consumption of meat for times of need, perhaps we should carefully consider what compelling reason would we have to do otherwise.
Are We Claiming All of the Blessings of the Word of Wisdom?
Hugh Nibley once declared, “On the whole, the Seventh-Day Adventists are better keepers of the Word of Wisdom than we are.” Indeed, Mormons are often compared to Adventists because both groups are urged to avoid alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. But in addition, Adventists are encouraged (not commanded) to be vegetarian, and about a third eat a plant-based diet. Many other Adventists eat meat more sparingly than Mormons, who, by and large, are meat eaters. Our meat consumption, in fact, is comparable to that of the general population.
As a consequence, where both religious groups enjoy significant health blessings, the vegetarian Adventists are significantly healthier and live longer than meat-eating Mormons. Could it be that the Adventists not only live the Word of Wisdom better than we do but are also enjoying more of its promised blessings?
President Spencer W. Kimball stated, “We believe that the Lord, when he gave the Word of Wisdom, was speaking to all the people in the world.” The Adventists are not the only ones leading out in eating a Word of Wisdom diet. Many other people, religious or not, have also switched to a WFPB diet and are reaping related blessings.
Where are the Mormons in all of this? Having received the Lord’s counsel in 1833, we should be as well ahead of the world in sound dietary practices as we are in other dimensions of our religion. Instead, we (or at least, I) have had to be taught by those outside of the Church to realize what a treasure we have in D&C 89! Experts like Colin Campbell, John McDougall, Joel Fuhrman, Neal Barnard, Hans Diehl, and Caldwell Esselstyn are among those who can teach us quite a bit about the principles found in the Word of Wisdom.
Mormons Waking Up to the Word of Wisdom
Since changing my diet, I have shared my re-discovery of the Word of Wisdom with hundreds of other Latter-day Saints and have seen the light turn on for many of them as well. When I introduce a WFPB diet to Mormons, I don’t even need to mention the Word of Wisdom; they get the connection.
In late 2013, I published a book detailing my experience: Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (see the first two chapters of the book here). In the course of writing this book, I solicited stories from other Latter-day Saints who are converts to a WFPB diet. As the stories poured in, I could see that the WFPB way of life has begun to impact the Mormon community. I feel great joy in witnessing what is happening as Mormons “wake up” to the Word of Wisdom. I am now featuring their stories on a website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
Yes, we live in a Church chock full of commandments. But we know that God’s commandments, far from restricting our freedom, are the doorway to the greatest freedom—and joy! The Lord tells us that the faithful and diligent will be “crowned with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few” (D&C 59:4). Why would we want to ignore any of the Lord’s counsel and miss out on any of His precious blessings?
I testify that heeding the counsel in D&C 89 brings marvelous blessings. We have the Lord’s promise that those who obey this counsel and walk in obedience to all of the commandments,
. . . shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. (D&C 89:18-21)
I should have known that a Church so blessed with commandments needs no freebies!
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013) and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
To view all the articles in this series, see “Discovering the Word of Wisdom.”
Notes 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).  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion,” August 13, 2013. (Emphasis added to the quote.)  Ali H. Mokdad, James S. Marks, Donna F. Stroup, and Julie L. Gerberding, “Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association 291, no. 10 (2004): 1238–1245.  Sterling C. Hilton, Ray M. Merrill, and Jared D. Sturgeon. “Comparison of Causes of Death During 1994–1998 Between LDS and non-LDS in Utah.” Utah’s Health: An Annual Review 2000–2001 7 (2000): 39–49.  Philip Mason, Xiaohe Xu, and John Bartkowski, “The Risk of Overweight and Obesity Among Latter-Day Saints,” Review of Religious Research 55, no. 1 (March 2013): 131–147.  John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution (New York: Rodale, 2012).  Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (New York: Avery, 2007).  Hugh Nibley, “Word of Wisdom: Commentary on D&C 89,” 1979.  Lester E. Bush, Jr. Health and Medicine among the Latter-day Saints (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 67.  See the series of studies cited in “Do Vegetarians Live Longer Than Health Conscious Omnivores?” (February 2014).  Spencer W. Kimball, “Why Call Me Lord, Lord, and Do Not the Things Which I Say?” Ensign (May 1975): 4.  Jane Birch, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (Provo, UT: Fresh Awakenings, 2013).