I was blessed to be raised on a diet healthier than the standard American variety. In the 1970s when most kids were living on toaster pastries, Twinkies, and Wonder Bread, we were grinding our own wheat to make whole wheat bread and cracked wheat porridge. When we made cookies or Kool-Aid, my father insisted on using half the sugar that the recipe called for. As I grew older and moved away from home, I continued to cook most things from scratch, the way I was brought up. I wasn’t too concerned about health or a balanced diet, it was more about saving money and making homemade food that tasted better. Besides, I never had to worry about losing weight as I was always trim and thin as a child and young adult. I never even exercised.
When I hit my mid-20s, I started to put on a little bit of weight. It concerned me enough that I started exercising to try to get in shape. But all my bike-riding just left me worn out and discouraged. It never occurred to me that my diet was to blame. I thought I was doing just fine.
I married at age 29 and had my first child when I was 30. My new role as a wife and mother made me more concerned about healthy eating. It was not just about me anymore, I had a family to feed. The responsibility to not just feed my family, but to feed them well, rested heavy on my conscience. I read everything online that I could find about healthy diets and worried much about how to best feed my family a balanced diet.
Although I read many conflicting opinions from various “experts,” I felt blessed to have the Word of Wisdom as my foundation. If I read anything that said to eat lots of meat and avoid grains, I dismissed it immediately. However, I always wished that the Word of Wisdom had more specifics. I thought it was too vague and didn’t cover all the food groups. I knew it said to eat meat sparingly, and I tried to follow that advice, but what about eggs and dairy products? I also worried much about what kind of oils were the healthy ones, and other hotly debated topics.
The more I read about healthy diets, the more I became convinced that the common-sense diet to follow was a whole food diet. Why should we need to change or refine the foods that God provides? I began to clean up my diet, eliminating processed things like sugar, white flour, and fruit juice. (It never occurred to me that oil and butter were refined foods.) I learned to cook everything with whole wheat flour, and I used dates and other fruits to sweeten our desserts. I also worried much about the meat, milk, and eggs from factory farms, so we managed to squeeze a dozen laying hens and three milk goats onto our small city lot. When money allowed, we ordered free-range organic chickens and a side of grass-fed beef to fill our freezer. I greatly reduced the amount of meat I bought at the grocery store.
By now I had three children and had gained about 10 pounds for each one. I was relatively healthy, but I felt like I should be healthier. I ate a better diet than most people I knew, yet why was I plagued with this excess weight? I also had some eczema that periodically irritated my hands and eyes. It sometimes got so bad that my eyes swelled shut. I tried lots of things to try to find the root of this problem; I tried going dairy-free and then gluten free, but nothing seemed to work. Another annoyance was some chest congestion that made it hard to breathe in the mornings. Many times I half-heartedly tried to get in the habit of exercising, but I always lost motivation when I was discouraged with no positive results for my efforts. I figured I was just doomed to become heavier and heavier as the years went on.
In January of 2014, I was determined to make some changes. That was the year that I was going to turn 40, so I decided to give a gift to myself and lose 40 pounds in time for my birthday in June. I wasn’t sure how to do that, though. I had been praying for years for knowledge about the best diet, and for the will to eat it! Now I started praying extra hard that I would be able to lose weight, and especially that I would be able to clear up my chest congestion. I was anxious to breathe freely because I wanted to be able to sing for the ward choir. We have a tiny choir, and I am about the only alto. A performance was coming up in a few weeks, and I needed to be able to breathe better to sing loud enough. All the natural remedies I had been trying weren’t working, so my prayers were especially fervent.
It was then that I saw a link on Facebook to a book review of Discovering the Word of Wisdom. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read it. I had always compared any diet advice to the Word of Wisdom, and here was a book that had already done it for me! I bought the e-book and took an entire day to read it cover to cover (while my home-schooled children had a day off and watched TV all day, ha!). At the end of the day I was in a bit of shock and denial, but I could not ignore the spirit that I felt as I read it. Everything the author, Jane Birch, had said made perfect sense, and now I realized that the Word of Wisdom said nothing about dairy or eggs because we didn’t need them! It was like everything that I had studied about diet, history (Benjamin Franklin’s writings, for one), and religion all came into alignment and the Word of Wisdom was finally crystal clear. Even my experiences with my own farm animals clicked on like a lightbulb.
But I wasn’t completely convinced that this plant-based diet could be right. I had always admired vegans and vegetarians for living their convictions, but I believed that vegans were sacrificing their own health for the good of the animals. How could you be healthy if you cut out two whole food groups? All misgivings aside, I was determined to try out the diet as an experiment, at least until my birthday in June. I believed that “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). I went to bed that night sorrowing because I loved to cook and bake, but I thought that my cooking days were over. I had experimented enough in the kitchen to know that there are substitutions for milk and eggs, but how could I make anything without oil or butter? I thought I was doomed to eat nothing but steamed brown rice and vegetables for the rest of my life.
The next morning I googled “whole food plant based recipes” hoping to find at least one website or book that could help me out. Instead, I was blown away by the sheer number of blogs and cookbooks devoted to this type of food. In all my Internet searching, how had I never discovered this before? Since then, my love of cooking and baking hasn’t stopped, but I had to re-learn how to cook everything. I eventually got rid of all my old cherished cook books to make way for the new ones. I found that this new way of cooking doesn’t produce the same results as the old way. But different is good. In many cases, it can even be much better! When you think about it, why do people cook the way they do? I believe the traditions have been passed down, mostly from the rich food cooked in France. But recipes can be yummy and make you feel great at the same time.
I went cold-turkey with the new diet from day one, and at first, I did experience weird withdrawal symptoms. For about a week, I had terrible heartburn whenever I took a bite of any food; it was strange. My eczema also flared up again (for the last time!). And my body kept telling me that I would be fine if I could just eat some biscuits like they sell at KFC, made with white flour and butter. But my mind told me that this was ridiculous, and I had faith that certainly I would survive at least 5 months without animal products. After a week or two, these strange feelings went away. And I discovered I could breathe deeply again, just in time to sing loudly in Sacrament Meeting with the choir, yay!
And then of course, my weight started dropping dramatically. I lost 1-2 pounds a week, without doing an ounce of exercise. I certainly wasn’t “dieting,” and I was eating plenty of high-fat things like avocados and nuts. I just made sure that most everything I ate fell into the plant-based whole food category. Within a month, I knew I would never go back to my omnivore ways. I just felt so full of energy and life, and there was a spring in my step that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I didn’t quite make my original goal of losing 40 pounds by my 40th birthday, but I hit that mark about a month later.
Shortly after I hit that goal weight, I had the happy surprise of finding out I was pregnant. It was a shock to me because I assumed I was well past my child-bearing years. I had been pregnant two years earlier, but it ended with a miscarriage at 17 weeks. Although we longed for another child, I had the distinct impression that I would not have any more children because my body could not handle it, and that I should be grateful for the three children I had already been blessed with. So I had accepted that fact and moved on with my life. Now I found my body recharged and ready to grow a new life!
Early on in my pregnancy, I had the sweet feeling that this new baby was a special gift to me because I had changed my destiny by changing my diet. And I felt the impression that I would have a girl and that I should name her Jane, because without Jane Birch and her book, I would have not had this baby.
I was very sick the first part of my pregnancy, and very tired through the whole thing, but I stuck with my vegan diet the whole time. I did let some things slide because of sheer exhaustion, namely I would sometimes rely on vegan convenience meals that are always loaded with too much oil. Still, this pregnancy was definitely the healthiest one I had had, and I only gained about 18 pounds instead of the usual 40. My sweet baby Jane was born in April of 2015, and the labor was quick and easy. Jane is about 10 months old now, and healthy as a horse. I have kept with my vegan diet the whole time and still have had plenty of milk for her.
I still haven’t lost all the weight I gained during pregnancy, mostly because of the habit I developed during pregnancy of turning to things like Boca Burgers when I am too exhausted to cook. But I have committed anew to ridding the oil that has crept back into my diet, and I am confident that I will be able to lose another 10-20 pounds without much effort.
My husband and children have been very supportive through this whole journey. I have not forced my children to eat the way I do, but I have been teaching them proper principles, and I know they believe it. I was worried that my husband would protest, but I felt strongly that this revelation was not just for me, but for my family as well. So I informed them all from the start that if they wanted to eat junk food and meat, they would have to make it themselves, as from now on I was only cooking whole food plant based meals. I would say that their spirits are willing, but their flesh is weak. They eat and enjoy everything I make, but if we are at a party or restaurant, they will choose to eat things like hamburgers and ice cream. I think that someday my husband will commit more to the diet, he says he is just not ready yet.
I feel so great and so healthy that I know I will never go back to my omnivore days. It was just such a relief to me when I learned that I could be totally healthy without animal products. I loved my chickens and goats, but it was a lot of work to keep their pens clean, keep them fed, and milk the goats twice a day. It was so nice to get rid of them when I realized I didn’t need them anymore. I had also experienced the pain of raising an animal, and then having to kill it and slaughter it to eat it. (Truthfully, I made my husband do the dirty work.) I am positive that there would be a lot more vegetarians in the world if people were more aware of the trouble, heartache, and sheer amount of hard work that goes into raising and slaughtering animals for food. It took us longer to slaughter and clean a chicken than it does to eat it!
On a more spiritual note, I want to add the same sentiment as others have. I started this diet strictly for my own health, but have become even more aware of the feelings and sufferings of animals as a result. I don’t get to attend the temple very often because of our remote Alaska location, but the last time I went, I was amazed to listen to doctrine about animals that I had never paid attention to before. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Can everybody hear this? They weren’t created just to satisfy our cravings for bacon!” I know a lot of people that will get on their soapboxes to decry cruelty to animals (meaning dogs and cats), but also eat an excess of factory-farmed animals without a second thought of where their food came from.
I also have come to understand the part of my patriarchal blessing that admonishes me to live the Word of Wisdom. That part had always puzzled me since I have had absolutely zero temptations in my life to drink or smoke. I never even wanted to drink a caffeinated soda. Now I understand that this meant to follow the rest of the Word of Wisdom that most members fail to live. I want to make it clear that I do not judge people for not following Section 89 more closely. I know I used to be one of those people. And furthermore, I know that it is not a commandment, but rather a suggestion with blessings attached. I just don’t understand why anyone would rather have bacon instead of the promised blessings of wisdom and health.
I will be forever grateful to Jane Birch for taking the time to research and write her book. I feel like it was the answer to all my prayers, and that she wrote it just for me.
Joy (41) grew up in Arizona and Minnesota. She served an LDS mission in Costa Rica where she learned to survive mainly on rice and black beans and loved every spoonful! She attended BYU-Provo and graduated with a degree in Geography. She now lives in Alaska with her husband and four children. She keeps busy homeschooling her children, but finds enough spare time to sew handmade goods to sell in her Etsy shop, teach violin lessons, and attend band practices and gigs with the two bands she plays in.