This article is #4 in a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view previous articles, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
In the first article of this series, I shared the amazing fact that the scientific evidence suggests we could eliminate 80% of chronic disease through faithfully following the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom. Most of us already believe that if the entire world gave up alcohol and tobacco, this one act would have ENORMOUS health consequences. It shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that following the rest of the Lord’s counsel would have equally dramatic results. We know our God is a God of promises, and the Word of Wisdom is specifically given as a “principle with a promise” (D&C 89:3). Note too that it is “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” (D&C 89:3), so we are not talking about changes that are impossible to make.
In Parts I and II of “The Flesh of Beasts,” I examined the Lord’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom where He directs us to use meat sparingly and states that it is “pleasing” to Him if we do not use them except in times of need: winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger. I also discussed why the Lord would counsel us to rely on plant foods for our nutrition and shared the surprising fact that plants (not animals) are the source of all of the essential macro and micronutrients the human body needs. I concluded that animal foods are a decent backup source of nutrition, but they come packaged with much that is harmful to our health. They are not designed for regular human consumption.
In this article, I will examine the question of protein and other essential nutrients. I will also discuss when it may be appropriate to consume the flesh of animals.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Anyone who stops eating meat 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 to not get more than enough protein, including all the essential amino acids. In fact, it is so drop-dead simple to get enough protein that you don’t need to pay any attention to the amount and type of amino acids in the foods you eat. How could this be? The explanation is simple.
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 our bodies are built for an environment with plenty of protein. In fact, in our society we are in more danger of consuming too much protein than too little.
Except for fruits, most plant foods (vegetables, legumes, and grains) contain more than enough protein for human needs. Not only that, they also supply more then enough of all the essential amino acids. If all you ate was cabbage, you would still get enough protein! The same is true about almost any combination of wholesome plant foods. As long as you get enough calories, you get enough protein, including all the essential amino acids you need. It is that simple.
Exploding Myths About Animal Protein
From the time protein was identified as a macronutrient, our understanding of it has been shrouded in myths. One of these myths is that animal protein is superior to plant protein. 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. Correlation is not causation, but 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 animals by adjusting the percentage of animal protein in their diets. Vegetable protein does not have the same effect.
Like humans, animals do not need to consume foods with a high percent of complete protein for their health requirements; they extract the various amino acids from the plants they eat 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 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 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.
How Does the Protein Intake of Vegetarians Compare with Non-Vegetarians?
The largest study ever done of vegetarians compared people who eat meat with those who do not. Unsurprisingly, they found that meat eaters get far more protein than they need from their diets. But the exact same result is true of every sort of vegetarian they studied, including those who ate no animal foods of any kind: they all consumed far more protein than is needed. In short, it is extremely rare in our society for anyone to not get enough protein. And yet we are constantly being told which foods have more protein as if we were deficient!
On the other hand, there is an important nutrient that 97% of Americans are NOT getting enough of. What is it? Fiber! Only 3% of us are getting enough. And note: fiber is found ONLY in plant foods, especially whole plant foods. There is no fiber in meat, dairy, or eggs, and very little in junk food. Instead of being concerned about getting “enough protein,” perhaps we should work on getting “enough fiber.”
What About Other Nutrients?
What about iron? Calcium? Omega-3 fatty acids? And the host of other nutrients our bodies need? Is a plant diet adequate?
Not only is a plant diet adequate, it is clearly superior.
Remember: plants are the source of all macro and micro-nutrients. Animals are not the original source of a single human nutrient. A healthy whole food, plant-based diet provides all of the nutrients needed for human health, at every stage of life.
Yes, we can get plant nutrients second hand by eating animal foods, but this comes with a price, since animal foods are the source of a host of dietary contributors to all kinds of chronic disease. There is no known nutritional reason why humans need to consume any type of animal food for any reason, save in a very few rare cases (e.g. a person whose body has stopped producing cholesterol).
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 “vegetarian” because a healthy diet is not just about avoiding animal foods; the Word of Wisdom admonishes us to eat the wholesome plant foods ordained of God for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). 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 happy now to refrain from eating meat when there is no need, and I am grateful to know that this is pleasing to the Lord.
Let’s Use the Word of Wisdom to Sort Fact from Fiction
Regardless of exactly how we interpret the Word of Wisdom, D&C 89 clearly comes down strongly on the “high-carbohydrate/low-protein” side of nutritional debates. Plenty of low-carb, 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 (including the currently popular Paleo diet) may help people lose weight and feel better (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 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.
Why the Confusion?
I may have already lost half the potential readers in the first article of this series, but those who have hung in there (thank you!) may be wondering: if all this is so “crystal clear,” why haven’t I been told?
There are many reasons. One of them I mentioned in the last article: it is in the financial interest of a great many people to convince us that animals foods are good for our health (see D&C 89:4). But another important reason is our social conditioning. Everyone around us eats animal foods. How could everyone be wrong? Even those with responsibility to teach us wise nutrition, like the USDA for example, teach us that meat is an important part of a healthy diet. The professionals in the field of nutrition consume and promote meat. Surely, so many good people can’t be wrong!? Is there not safety in numbers?
Perhaps the people in the large and spacious building Lehi saw felt the same: Is there not safety in numbers?
And too many of us reason: surely the Word of Wisdom can’t be saying what it appears to say. After all, we’ve grown up with the Word of Wisdom in a Church that serves meat at almost every ward social. All the good, righteousness, spiritual saints we know eat meat! Given who we are as social beings, this evidence is enough for most people to totally dismiss the idea that the Lord would be happier if we did not consume meat.
Yes, it is true that a great many righteous people who have lived or who do now live on this earth do not eat an especially healthy diet. So, we have established that one can be righteous on a less than optimal diet. I do not doubt that a great many righteous saints who do not eat the healthiest foods are nonetheless headed straight to the Celestial Kingdom. But isn’t it possible for even a righteous saint to make better dietary decisions and lead a healthier lifestyle? Would this not also be pleasing to our Savior?
Experiment on the Word!
Let us remember, we are all learning “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30). None of us are perfect, and it should not surprise us that there are many ways in which we as a community of saints might do a bit better. One of them, I submit, is in paying closer attention to the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89. Really, it is going to hurt us to give it a try?
Please don’t take my word for it! You can study the evidence for yourself.
After your study, you can experiment on the word, as Alma suggests in Alma 32. Plant the seed by trying a Word of Wisdom diet based on wholesome plant foods. Nourish it. Give it a chance to grow so you can taste the sweet fruit for yourself: weight loss, recovery of health, increased energy, increased mental clarity, more attunement to the Spirit, and greater compassion for the world.
Dear Readers: Eating an optimal diet is not a requirement for entering the temple. Nor is it a requirement for the Celestial Kingdom. And yes we can learn a great many valuable lessons from sickness and disease. This is all true. But let us also consider how much we value our health and the many ways we can serve the Lord with the increased strength and energy we can receive. What is your health worth to you? Decide now, because once chronic disease strikes, you may be too sick to radically change your diet, and you may then discover that all the money in the world cannot buy the health we could get from simply following the counsel in the Word of Wisdom.
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
The counsel in the Word of Wisdom goes far beyond the verses on meat. Next time I will address, “Wholesome Herbs and Every Fruit.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013). She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 Actually this may be a conservation estimate. In the article below, participants in a 23,153 person study who adhered to four healthy practices (never smoking, low BMI, regular physical activity, and a healthy diet) had a 78% lower risk of chronic disease than participants who adhered to none of these healthy practices. This was true even though the “healthy diet” they consumed was not as healthy as a Word of Wisdom diet based solely on whole plant foods.
Earl S. Ford, Manuela M Bergmann, Janine Krger, 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.
 You can test the amount of amino acids (along with total protein, fats, and carbohydrates) in foods yourself using a handy nutrition calculator: Cron-o-meter.
 Some people, like nursing mothers, may choose to consume more high protein plant foods like beans.
 See study after study described and documented in 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).
 Campbell and Campbell, The China Study, chapter 3.
 Compare, for example, the China described by Campbell in The China Study with the chronic explosion 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 one of the higher rates of diabetes in the world.
 NS Rizzo, K Jaceldo-Siegl, J Sabate, and GE Fraser, “Nutrient Profiles of Vegetarian and Nonvegetarian Dietary Patterns Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 113, no. 12 (2013):1610-1619. See also short video summary of protein intakes here.
 American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” 2009, See also the reference cited in footnote 7. Note that both of these references refer to “vegetarian” diets, which are not necessarily healthy diets as vegetarian diets can consist of solely junk plant foods. We can expect even better results from a Word of Wisdom diet based on whole plant-based foods.