This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom in Meridian Magazine.

Last week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I explored the relationship between processed foods and food addiction. This relationship is important because one of the main purposes and benefits of the Word of Wisdom is helping us be free of addictions of all kinds. I concluded that a whole food, plant-based diet is the only healthy diet that permanently removes us from the pleasure trap of food addiction. It does this by fully satisfying our need to eat food that is both delicious and that helps us achieve and then maintain proper weight and good health. The fact that it does this without the need to count carbs, points, or calories is true freedom! (If you missed it, here are additional tips for overcoming food addictions.)

In this week’s article, I will discuss healthy fats and vegetable oils. If processed foods are not the “wholesome” foods God refers to in the Word of Wisdom, what fats are healthy and how much do we need? What about the oils made from wholesome plants? Extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil are all the rage, but are they health-promoting

Note: Like most topics, I can barely scratch the surface of this one, but I’ve added a few sources to the footnotes for interested readers.[1]

The Power of a Low-Fat Diet to Bring Heart Disease to Its Knees

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is one of my heroes. His use of a “heart-attack proof” diet to stop and even reverse heart disease is how I first learned about a “whole food, plant-based diet” in 2011. Three years later, in July 2014, Dr. Esselstyn published a landmark study that I believe further validates the efficacy of what I would call a “Word of Wisdom diet” on an even wider scale.

Over a period averaging 3.7 years, 198 patients with coronary artery disease under Dr. Esselstyn’s care committed to a very low-fat whole food, plant-based diet to aid in the treatment of their disease. Of these 198, an outstanding 177 (89%) adhered to the diet, showing that this is not an impossible task to accomplish (D&C 89:3). Out of the 21 people who initially participated in the study and then decided to not comply with the diet, 62% of them subsequently experienced at least one adverse cardiac event. In contrast, only one of the 177 compliant patients had but one major cardiac event (0.6%) due to recurrent heart disease.[2] The is the lowest recurrence rate in any study ever done on heart disease.

No other diet has ever proven to change the course of heart disease so dramatically! This is even more important when we realize that many of the risk factors for heart disease are the same risk factors for many of the other chronic diseases we experience, such as stroke, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and kidney disease.

The congruence between a whole food, plant-based diet and the counsel in the Word of Wisdom has never been clearer. Is it likely that plant-based food experts were just smart enough to come up with a diet that is more powerful than what the Lord gave His children? This is not likely. I believe if we want to fully understand the Word of Wisdom, we had better look very carefully at the naturally low-fat whole food, plant-based diet.

How Much Fat is Needed?

I like the idea of “essential fats.” I’d like it even better if there were also “essential sugars” and that we needed LOTS of these vital nutrients every day. We humans love fat. We love sweet things. Heavenly Father blessed us with a taste for both. Originally, this helped our ancestors find and consume the foods needed to survive periods when food was scarce. But now that so much of our food is high in fat and/or sugar, our love for these foods can lead to obesity and a life filled with multiple health problems.

The truth is, fats are essential, but we need very little. We don’t need any more then 10% of our calories in fats for good health.[3] And we don’t need to look to exotic sources to find them: regular low-fat vegetables (especially the green leafy ones), grains, beans, even fruit contain the needed essential fatty acids. These are the healthy fats for optimal health. If we need or want a little more, just a small amount of omega-3-rich plant foods, like flax seeds, give us more than enough.[4]

Of course, it is unnecessary to calculate how much fat, protein, or carbohydrates you are eating; simply focus on “wholesome” (unprocessed) plant foods. Unlike animal foods, these foods naturally provide the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. No wonder God ordained these wholesome plants for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10).

How Much Fat Are We Getting?

While a diet with 10% fat is more than adequate for excellent health, many dietary recommendations inexplicably allow much more (up to 35%!). The average American diet is approximately 35% fat calories, which means roughly half of Americans are consuming even more than 35%. It should come as no surprise that the average American dies of heart disease, or some related disease. The fact is it is “extremely rare” to find anyone with a fat deficiency in the United States.[5]

We often hear that obesity has skyrocketed ever since Americans went “low-fat,” but it is very clear that Americans NEVER went “low fat.” The average may have dipped closer to 33% at one point, but this is certainly NOT low fat. Even more importantly, the total AMOUNT of fat we’ve consumed has actually INCREASED significantly. How can the percent of fat decrease while the total fat intake has increased? The reason is that the total number of calories in our diets has also increased about 30% (from 1970 to 2008). So, over the last few decades we’ve been eating MORE total fat (and yes also more processed carbs which are also unhealthy and often paired with fat and/or sugar).[6]

If you are one of the rare Americans who is in danger of not getting enough fat in your diet, congratulations: add a tablespoon or two of ground flax seed to your oatmeal! For the rest of us, we might want to think more about the serious consequences of consuming so much fat.

Why More Than We Need is Not a Good Idea

When we consume more fat than is needed, the body knows just what to do: store it for a time of need.[7] But when was the last time you needed to live off of the fat stored on your body?

As we know, extra fat stored on the body usually does not enhance our appearance. Worse, it is damaging to our health. Extra fat in the body makes its way into our arteries and over the years builds up to dangerous levels that can lead to not just clogged arteries but a heart attack. The American diet is so high in fat that this process now begins in the arteries of our children! By the time we are young adults, most of us have evidence of atherosclerosis, the beginning of heart disease (watch this important 6-minute video).[8] No wonder atherosclerosis is ubiquitous in our senior citizens, and heart disease kills 600,000 Americans a year, one in four deaths, at a cost of over $250 billion a year.[9]

There is not a Latter-day Saint who does not know cigarette smoking-induced lung cancer is one disease that need never exist. If every person followed the Word of Wisdom, no one would suffer this fate. What is far less well known is that heart disease, the number one killer in America, is also largely preventable. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn calls it a “toothless paper tiger” (watch his 15-minute TED Talk).[10] It is a diet-induced disease that need not exist, and if everyone followed the Word of Wisdom and consumed only “wholesome” plant foods with “prudence,” most cardiologists would have to switch occupations.

Because arteries supply blood throughout the body, a high-fat diet affects every area of the anatomy. Depending on the artery, it can cause macular degeneration (retinal arteries); hearing loss (arteries of inner ear); strokes (cerebral arteries); kidney failure (renal arteries); degenerative disk disease (lumbar arteries); and intermittent claudication and gangrene (peripheral leg arteries). A high fat diet is also contributory to most common chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, arthritis, hypertension, and, of course, obesity.

A prudent low-fat whole food diet would go a long way to eradicating most chronic disease from our society. But the focus needs to be more than “low-fat.” It is not that a “low-fat” diet guarantees good health; it is that a healthy whole food, plant-based diet is also naturally low-fat.[11] You can eat a very unhealthy “low-fat” diet by including low-fat animal foods and processed junk foods. This is not a recipe for optimal health.

Vegetable Oils Are Not Whole Foods

It should be obvious that vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, and canola oil, are not whole foods. Picture an ear of corn. Now picture a bottle of corn oil. These are two very different things. It does not matter how the oil was extracted from the vegetable, once the fat is isolated from the carbohydrates, protein, and complex assortment of thousands of nutrients, it is no longer a whole food. It is just fat.

Vegetable oils are among the most heavily processed, refined foods we routinely eat. At 4,000 calories per pound, they are also the most calorically dense foods on earth. They provide little to no nutritive value. They contain no fiber and no minerals. What they do contain are artery-clogging fat calories that add weight and damaging health effects to our bodies.

Just as processing whole plants into white flour and white sugar turns healthy foods into unhealthy ones, processing whole plants into oils does the same thing. Whole sweet corn is roughly 80% carbohydrates, 10% fat, and 10% protein. One cup of sweet corn is about 130 calories and contains all kinds of vitamins and minerals, along with hundreds if not thousands of other nutrients. Two tablespoons of corn oil, on the other hand, are almost 250 calories of 100% fat with very close to zero nutrients of any kind. How many of us need empty calories?

The Lord has ordained “wholesome” foods for our use and asked us to eat them with “prudence” (D&C 89:10–11). How could stripping a whole plant of its nutrients and reducing it to a substance that damages our bodies be prudent?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Coconut Oil

I sincerely hope I will not offend any readers by questioning the health benefits of EVOO and coconut oil. This is not my intent. I trust readers to discern the truth, but we so rarely hear the truth about these matters because it is in no one’s financial interest to tell us. I invite interested readers to study the references in the footnotes.[12]

The truth is: the advantages of eating wholesome, unrefined plant foods suggest that even the so-called “heart-healthy” olive oil is not a wise choice, even if it is extra virgin. Whole green olives are almost 90% fat, but at least they contain a variety of nutrients and some fiber; 100 grams of pickled olives (3.5 ounces) clock in at 150 calories. If we squeeze out the fat from many olives to produce just 28 grams of olive oil (two tablespoons), we discard almost all of the nutrients and all of the fiber, and we are left with 100% pure fat that clocks in at about 240 calories, including 14% saturated fat.

If the oil is “extra virgin” and “cold-pressed” and “organic,” it does not change any of these facts. Would we be fooled if someone suggested eating sugar is healthy if we use only “grade A, non-GMO, organic, locally-farmed” sugarcane to produce it? No. Not even if they had proof that this sugar is healthier than conventional sugar. Some facts count much more than others

Here are just two examples (out of many) that demonstrate the negative effects of consuming olive oil. (1) Modern technology can detect, in real time, the immediate damage olive oil does to the endothelial lining of our arteries by measuring the arterial blood flow in people who have just consumed it. (2) Monkeys fed monounsaturated fat (like olive oil) do show lower levels of bad cholesterol and higher levels of good cholesterol, but autopsies show that they develop just as much coronary artery disease as those who consume saturated fat.[13]

At 90% saturated fat, coconut oil is worse than olive oil, notwithstanding its current popularity. Even assuming it is true that the medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) coconut oil contains are better health-wise then long-chain fatty acids, about 40% of the saturated fats in coconut oil are not MCFAs. In fact, coconut oil contains almost as much long-chain saturated fat (35%) as lard (40%).[14] If you compare the nutrient profile of coconut oil to sugar, guess which one comes out ahead? Sugar! [15] It is a wonder how coconut oil promoters can get so many good people to believe junk food is actually “health food.”

What about all the studies that link the use of olive oil, coconut oil, or other oils with better heath? Refined oils only appear healthy in contrast to fats that are even worse for our bodies. If we use vegetable oils in place of more damaging fats (like animal fats and trans fats), we may see benefits, but to add them to a whole food, plant-based diet makes the diet worse, not better, for our health.[16]

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn does not allow any oils in the whole food, plant-based diet he gives to his patients with coronary artery disease. He does not want to add even one drop of fuel to the fire of their disease. It may sound severe, but compared to getting by-pass surgery, it is a breeze!

Refined Oils Are Junk Calories

Refined oils are the junk calories of the fats, just as refined sugars are the junk calories of the carbohydrates. I found it surprisingly easy to do without vegetable oils when I switched to a whole food, plant-based diet. Even with the serious lack of cooking skills I possessed, it was not difficult to learn to cook without them.

I don’t believe all this means we have to abstain from all oils in the same way we abstain from all alcohol or tobacco. It is not imperative to assiduously avoid every drop of vegetable oil, any more than we need to avoid all white flour or all white sugar (though doing so is better and certain health conditions warrant it). But if we do choose to use any of these refined foods, it should be clear to us that we are using them for flavor or convenience and not because they are “healthy.” Nevertheless, how much better to eat wholesome plants in their season “with prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:10–11).

How to Reduce Fat and Cook Without Oils

Happily, the craving we have for a high-fat diet will change as we change our diets. These fat cravings actually disappear as our tastes and bodies become accustomed to far less fat in the diet. According to research conducted by the Monell Center, this can take up to about 90 days.[17] As our taste buds change, we’ll discover how delicious naturally low-fat whole plant foods can be!

Here are tips for “Reducing Fat in Your Diet and Cooking Without Oil.”

Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom

So for, I have discussed two of the three main dietary pillars of the Word of Wisdom: (1) Wholesome plants are ordained for our constitution, nature, and use (D&C 89:10–11) and (2) Animal flesh should be eaten sparingly and only in times of need (D&C 89:12–13). Next week, I’ll tackle the third main pillar: (3) All grain is good and ordained to be the “staff of life” (D&C 89:14, 16).

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.


[1] There is a lot of misinformation about fats by many well-meaning people who do not understand the power of a whole food, plant-based diet. Here are a few references I recommend: (a) Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (New York: Avery, 2007)—see also Esselstyn’s online articles; (b) John McDougall, “When Friends Ask: Why Do You Avoid Adding Vegetable Oils?”; (c) Jeff Novick, “The Myth of Moderation Pt 2: The Impact of ‘Just A Little Oil!’” (d) Pulde and Lederman, Chapter 11, “Fats and Oils” in Keep It Simple, Keep It Whole  (Los Angeles: Exsalus Health & Wellness Center, 2009). See also footnote [12] for references on olive oil and coconut oil.

[2] Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., et al., “A Way to Reverse CAD?” The Journal of Family Practice 63, no. 7 (July 2014): 356–364.

[3] Gordon M. Wardlaw and Anne M. Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 6th ed. updated (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 147.

[4] There are many types of fats, but only two that are essential to get from food: omega 3 and omega 6. Only plants can synthesize these chemicals, so humans and animals depend on these plants (or animals that have eaten these plants) to get these nutrients. The National Academy of Sciences has determined that an adequate daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men. This amount equals about 1/4 to 1/3 of a teaspoon a day. A whole food, plant-based diet supplies all of the essential fatty acids. (A few researchers doubt whether every human on a plant-based diet will convert enough omega 3 to the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA. No research confirms that this is an issue for people on a whole food, plant-based diet, but if some people want to take a DHA supplement, I recommend using a plant-based source, of which there are several.)

[5] National Academy of Sciences, “Report Offers New Eating and Physical Activity Targets, To Reduce Chronic Disease Risk” (September 5, 2002).

[6] See T. Colin Campbell, “Low Fat Diets Are Grossly Misrepresented,” Huffington Post (September 28, 2010). Note that added fat and oil consumption increased by 63% between 1970-2005 (“Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005”) and calories went up by 30% from 1970 to 2008 (“Combining the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and Physical Activity Guidelines to Achieve a Healthy Lifestyle”).

[7] Dr. John McDougall reminds us, “The fat you eat is the fat you wear.” When we consume fat, it accumulates almost effortlessly into our body fat. Carbohydrates (contrary to what we often read in the media) are much more difficult for the body to store as fat. See John McDougall, “People Passionate about Starches Are Healthy and Beautiful” (March 2009).

[8] I highly recommend this very eye-opening 6-minute video about how rampant artery damage is in even our children. Dr. Michael Greger, “Heart Disease Starts in Childhood” (September 23, 2013).

[9] SL Murphy, JQ Xu, and KD Kochanek, “Deaths: Final data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 4 (2013).

[10] Caldwell Esselstyn’s 15-minute TED Talk, “Making Heart Attacks History” (TEDxCambridge 2011).

[11] T. Colin Campbell, “Dietary Fat is Only Partly Where It’s At” (October 29, 2013).

[12] (a) Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Chapter 10 “Why Can’t I Have Heart-Healthy Oils?” in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (New York: Avery, 2007); (b) Eugenia Killoran, “Olive Oil Nutrition – What’s Wrong With Olive Oil?”; (c) lona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, “Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Hazardous?” (July 7, 2015); (d) David Schardt, “Coconut Oil” (June 2012).

[13] Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (New York: Avery, 2007), 85. See also: Eugenia Killoran, “Olive Oil Nutrition – What’s Wrong With Olive Oil?”

[14] You can research the amount and types of fat in the USDA National Nutrient Database

[15] Jeff Novick, “Marketing Junk Food: Don’t Go Cuckoo Over Coconut Oil” (April 10, 2008).

[16] John McDougall, “NEJM Study Promotes Olive Oil and Dismisses Low-fat Diet” (February 26, 2013). Caldwell Esselstyn, “Misleading Mediterranean Diets: Another Look at the Evidence.”

[17] Esselstyn, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, 115.