By Jane Birch
Are you eager to start this journey? If not, you are not alone! I find many people immediately grasp why a whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet makes sense, but many are not motivated to make an immediate, dramatic change in how they eat. They may feel pretty good about their health and aren’t worried about imminent disease. They may think this change is too radical, given their current situation, and figure they can always revisit that decision in the future. I can see some logic in this line of thinking, but I can also see some serious pitfalls. Today I’d like to present a few compelling reasons for making this change in your own life now.
Being Healthy Is Appealing at Every Age
If you are not ill and you love your food, why consider changing your diet? Avoiding chronic illness is one reason, but not everyone is motivated by the threat of disease. However there are hundreds of other good reasons why being healthy can make a huge difference in the quality of our lives, no matter our age. Dr. John McDougall suggests that for children, a great motivator is to avoid the pain and ridicule that can come from being, for example, overweight or sluggish or having acne. For young adults, looking and feeling healthy is important to not only feeling good about oneself but also attracting a mate. And of course, in the older years, delaying death and disability are key motivators, but good health also makes the adult years more enjoyable and enables additional opportunities for service and making a contribution.
By changing your diet now, you’ll enjoy better health for the rest of your life. You’ll feel better. You’ll lose the weight you need to lose and not have to worry about keeping it off for the rest of your life. You’ll look better. You’ll have more energy. You won’t get sick as often. You’ll potentially save thousands of medical dollars over the course of your lifetime. You won’t experience some of the constant health issues that may not be life threatening but are very uncomfortable and keep you from operating at your peak and reaching your full potential.
I’ve only scratched the surface of how good health can bless our lives! How might health, strength, and energy bless your life?
Most Chronic Diseases are Preventable
When I told a friend that a whole food, plant-based diet could prevent heart attacks, she replied, “I’d love to die of a heart attack!” What she meant was that when it is her time to go, a sudden massive heart attack sounds like a relatively quick and painless way. And it is true that for 25% of heart attack cases, sudden death is the first and only sign of heart disease. If you agree this would be an “easy” out for you, how do your loved ones feel about that?
Fortunately, 75% of people survive a heart attack. But what is it like to live with chronic heart disease? Some will need bypass surgery, a procedure where they take a vein out of your leg, cut open your chest, and insert the vein into your heart, turning it into an artery. Other survivors will deal with stents or other surgical interventions, experience frequent chest pains that limit their mobility, suffer the side effects of multiple drugs, and/or live in fear of various body parts shutting down.
For some people, their diet will not lead to a heart attack, but to one of the other causes of death that are strongly linked to diet. In fact, of the top seven leading causes for death in the U.S., only one of them (accidents) is not strongly linked to diet. Here are the top seven, along with the latest available statistics for the number of deaths:
- Heart disease: 611,105
- Cancer: 584,881
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
- Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767
- Diabetes: 75,578 
Thanks to the Word of Wisdom, we Mormons do pretty well with #3, chronic lower respiratory diseases, which are largely caused by tobacco and cigarette smoking. How blessed we are! But what about heart disease, cancer, stoke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes? Even conservative health institutions tell us that a high percentage of heart disease, cancer, stoke, and diabetes can be prevented through a healthy lifestyle, and increasingly there is evidence that Alzheimer’s Disease is similarly connected to a life-time of eating unwholesome foods. The Word of Wisdom is not just to protect us against lung disease; it protects us against all of these major chronic illnesses!
The fact is, unless you are on a radically heart-healthy diet, you already have the arterial disease that leads to heart attack and stroke. If you eat the Standard American Diet, fatty streaks begin developing in your arteries when you are a child. 17% of teenagers eating a Western diet already have plaques from atherosclerosis. Even relatively healthy-looking people in their 30’s and 40’s are beginning to experience heart-related problems.
The consequences of cerebrovascular diseases can also be devastating. Consider strokes, which (if they do not kill a person) can affect the person not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Many stroke victims are left with permanent neurological damage affecting their ability to perform even the most basic mental and physical tasks. Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the US. Approximately 75% of survivors are so disabled they cannot be employed to full capacity. Stroke victims can spend years relearning how to walk, talk, and take care of themselves.
What about cancer? While cancer can be caused by many factors beyond diet, a leading factor for both the cause of cancer and the rate of its progression is the food we eat (and don’t eat). Cancer cells are actually common and found in all our bodies, but when our body is fed right, it has a much better ability to deal with those cancer cells and fix problems before they can even be detected. How much better it is to eat a healthy diet so our bodies have the best chance to fight off those cancer cells before we ever have to go through diagnosis, treatment and (hopefully) recovery.
Like heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes is almost exclusively a diet-related disease. People eating a healthy whole food, plant-based diet do not get diabetes, just as people who abstain from tobacco never get the type of lung cancer caused by tobacco use.
In addition, there are many other illnesses you can largely prevent or halt through a radical change in diet, including (but not limited to): arthritis, asthma, colitis, constipation, diverticulitis, erectile dysfunction, gallbladder disease, gastritis, hypertension, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, obesity, and osteoporosis.
Many Debilitating Illnesses Take Years to Develop
One reason to not be complacent is that so many debilitating illnesses take years to develop. One popular online blogger, the Healthy Librarian, gave this answer to the question, “Why are you following [a whole food, plant-based] diet if [you] don’t have chronic illness”?
Because my parents were very sick for many years and I’d prefer to not be. I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to talk, incontinent, unable to feed myself, or recognize my loved ones. Heart disease, strokes, vascular dementia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers can take years to develop. Why wait until it’s too late to do something about them? 
No One Who Eats Poorly Escapes in the End
Whole food, plant-based expert Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn answered the question, “Why should I change? My health is excellent.” He replied:
No one escapes in the end—eventually the traditional Western diet guarantees some form of disease in all of us. While it may not be heart disease at the moment, eventually it will be hypertension, diabetes, stroke, obesity, gall stones, diverticulitis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, or a greater likelihood of breast, prostate, colon, ovarian and uterine cancers. Even erectile dysfunction and dementia. The world famous Framingham Heart Study, now approaching its 60th year, looked at 1,000 people at age 50 who had normal blood pressure. They looked at the same group at age 70, and 90 percent now had high blood pressure. But there is something you can do now to stop the cascading events that occur in the body and lead to disease. You can change your diet and begin safeguarding your health for the future.
Poor Habits Lead to Poor Quality of Life
The following advice is from 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. This is not a book about diet, just advice from some of our oldest citizens—those who have lived long enough to know better:
Act now like you will need your body for a hundred years. Stop using “I don’t care how long I live” as an excuse for bad health habits. Behaviors like smoking, poor eating habits, and inactivity are less likely to kill you than to sentence you to years or decades of chronic disease. Think walkers, wheelchairs, nursing homes, incontinence, dementia, oxygen, social isolation, and years of dependence.
It Is Harder to Change Once You Are Sick
Don’t wait until you are seriously ill before changing your diet. As hard as it may seem to change your diet now, it is much harder when you feel terrible. People with chronic disease are often consumed with mere survival and following the doctor’s orders, which likely will not include healthy nutrition. People I know who are seriously ill have no time, energy, or interest in any lifestyle change beyond what their illness is forcing on them. It is often only after many years of chronic disease that people are finally desperate enough to try a radical change in diet. Why wait until you are desperate?
Prevention Is Easier than Treatment
Disease is much easier to prevent than to manage. Why wait until serious illness strikes? Give yourself the chance of achieving optimal health. By starting now, you’ll have a better chance of reaching and maintaining optimal health. If you wait too long, this may never be an option for you.
You Can Start Now!
Whatever your current situation, you can start now, even if it is just baby steps. The Lord is patient with us, and He will help us insofar as we wish to be helped. He stands at the door and knocks. Let’s open the door to better health by making the Lord a part of the process. One approach is to study D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom, and ask the Lord the key questions Elder Kim B. Clark recommends we ask:
(1) What am I doing that I should stop doing?
(2) What am I not doing that I should start doing? 
There are many ways to approach a big change. Here are the two most common:
(2) Go Cold Turkey!
Notes John A. McDougall, “Empowering Change in Early, Middle, and Late Life,” McDougall Newsletter (October 2013).  Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Leading Causes of Death” (September 30, 2015).  According to the American Heart Association, “80 percent of heart disease and stroke can be prevented.” See “Make the Effort to Prevent Heart Disease with Life’s Simple 7” (November 6, 2015). For a more broader picture, see Earl S. Ford, Manuela M Bergmann, Janine Kröger, Anja Schienkiewitz, Cornelia Weikert, and Heiner Boeing, “Healthy Living is the Best Revenge: Findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam Study,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 15 (2009): 1355-62.  Xu W, Tan L, Wang HF, et. al, “Meta-analysis of Modifiable Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease,” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry (20 August 2015); Sezgin, Z. and Y. Dincer, “Review: Alzheimer’s Disease and Epigenetic Diet,” Neurochemistry International 78: 105-116 (2014); Michael Greger, “Where are the Lowest Rates of Alzheimer’s in the World?” NutritionFacts.org (November 12, 2015).  Michael Greger, “Stopping Heart Disease in Childhood,” NutritionFacts.org (July 15, 2014); Tuzcu E.M., Kapadia S.R., Tutar E., “High Prevalence of Coronary Atherosclerosis in Asymptomatic Teenagers and Young Adults. Evidence from Intravascular Ultrasound,” Circulation. 103:2705-2710 (March 2001).  Matthew Hoffman, “Atherosclerosis: Your Arteries Age by Age,” WebMD.com.  “Fifteen Months Into the Esselstyn-Style Plant-Based No-Oil Way of Eating – The Healthy Librarian Spills the Beans – And It’s All Good!” Happy Healthy Long Life [blog] (August 23, 2011).  Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. “Why Should I Change?” DrEsselstyn.com.  Karl Pillemer, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (New York: Plume, 2012).  Kim B. Clark, “Encircled About with Fire,” Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Satellite Broadcast (August 4, 2015).
Last updated December 19, 2015