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 time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I introduced the third dietary pillar of the Word of Wisdom: All grain is good and ordained to be the “staff of life” (D&C 89:14, 16).
In this article, I will explore the consequences of displacing grain as the staff of life.
Communicable vs. Noncommunicable Diseases
In societies where people consume a largely whole food, plant-based diet founded on grains as the staff of life, they suffer relatively few of the chronic illnesses that plague our society today. This was also true of peoples of all the great civilizations of the past. However, that does not mean they all enjoyed perfect health. In fact, on average, we enjoy better health than our ancestors did, even if our diet, in many respects, is worse. To understand why, we need to distinguish between two distinct types of diseases: communicable (infectious, typically acute) and noncommunicable (non-infectious, typically chronic, of long duration and slow progression).
I am very grateful we do not live as our ancestors did, under the constant threat of ravaging diseases that swept through communities, killing and maiming huge numbers of people. These were primarily communicable diseases like the bubonic plague, diarrheal diseases, diphtheria, dysentery, influenza, malaria, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and yellow fever. Other major killers in the past included hunger, childbirth, war, and accidents. Fortunately, we now know how to avert most of these tragedies, but our ancestors were relatively defenseless against many terrifying threats because they were often poor in sanitation, food security, and medical knowledge.
Even as late as the 19th century, when the Word of Wisdom was revealed, the greatest threats to human health were the infectious diseases, not the diet-related noncommunicable diseases which the Word of Wisdom seems tailor-made to address. If the Word of Wisdom had been primarily for the benefit of 19th-century Saints, it would have focused on issues of sanitation, not diet, in order to dramatically improve health conditions. Even if the early Saints had followed the dietary guidelines in Section 89 strictly, it would have had a relatively small impact on their health as compared to the impact it can have on our health today.
Because they were vulnerable to infectious diseases, many people before the 20th century did not live long enough to reach the age where we tend to suffer from the noncommunicable chronic illnesses prevalent today, but those who did live long enough were largely spared from these diseases. These are the diseases that are diet and lifestyle-related. They include the host of common inflammatory diseases like heart disease, strokes, impotence, and kidney disease. They also include the various autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, psoriasis, and thyroiditis. Furthermore, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and obesity were virtually unknown in whole food, grain-based populations, and the incidence of various cancers was likewise low.
Wisdom For the Last Days
The Word of Wisdom dietary counsel is needed much more in our day than it was when it was first revealed. Only since the 20th century have we had the wealth and resources to eradicate or control many of the terrifying infectious diseases of the past. But that same wealth has also allowed us to displace grain as the staff of life and put animal and other rich foods in its place. So just as our wealth has led to the eradication of communicable diseases and dramatically lengthened our lifespans, that wealth has led to more years spent suffering from the consequences of noncommunicable chronic diseases that are the result of an increasingly rich diet.
While we have learned how to prevent and control communicable diseases, our society remains largely ignorant of the fact that the noncommunicable diseases are also preventable, and so we are still living in the dark. I believe the way we eat today and feed our children is the modern equivalent of our ancestors choosing to work with (and allowing their children to play with) people in the community with bubonic plague or typhoid fever. It took a herculean effort to come as far as we have in eradicating communicable diseases. Where is the societal resolve to stamp out the noncommunicable diseases?
The Consequence of Displacing Grains as the Staff of Life
Contrast the relative absence of noncommunicable diseases in grain-based societies with the United States, where more than 100 million Americans live with chronic illnesses, accounting for 70% of deaths and 75% of the medical care costs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Chronic diseases and conditions—such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis—are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems. . . . about half of all adults—117 million people—have one or more chronic health conditions. One of four adults has two or more chronic health conditions.
While it is true that genes play a role in disease, they are not the primary cause. As whole food, plant-based (WFPB) experts point out: genes load the gun, but diet pulls the trigger. We see this most clearly in numerous examples of people moving from one area of the world, where they consume a largely WFPB diet, to a developed country like America where they (and especially their children and grandchildren) consume more Western foods. With the change of diet comes a dramatic increase in the incidence of chronic illness. Their genes did not change; their diet did.
For some time now, people in developed countries have been much more likely to die because of too much food rather than too little food. Sadly, this is also true of underdeveloped countries now that our disease-inducing diet is being adopted in parts of the world that previously ate a more healthy grain-based diet.
In China, more than 80% of annual deaths are now due to noncommunicable chronic illnesses. What is worse, “the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and lung cancer in individuals older than 40 years will double or even triple during the next two decades.” Noncommunicable diseases are now the leading cause of death in every region of the world, except Africa (where they are projected to exceed other causes of death by 2030).
We associate people who rely on grains as the staff of life with people who are relatively poor, those who can’t afford rich animal and processed foods. Most poor people do not eat a diet of primarily grains and other plant foods for health reasons but because that is all they can afford to eat or that is all they have access to. There have never been large populations who freely chose to be 100% vegetarian, much less vegan. Human beings enjoy eating meat and processed foods, and they almost invariably move toward making these foods the center of their meals when they are able.
When we eat more of the calorically dense meat and processed foods, we inevitably eat less of something else, and that something else is the more calorically dense plant foods, primarily whole grains. So as people gravitate toward animal and processed foods, these foods become, for them, the staff of life, displacing grains and other starches. Sadly, at the same time people are growing rich in the things of the world, the foods of affluence are making them poor in health. Much of their increased income may now have to be spent on medical bills.
A “Low-Carb” Diet is Another Way to Displace Grains
Not only are people eating too much animal food because they enjoy the taste, now some are actually advocating a “low-carb” diet for health reasons. While I don’t believe there is any doubt but that the scientific evidence clearly favors a plant-based diet founded on whole grains, Latter-day Saints should be particularly skeptical of these diets. After all, they are in contradiction to the Lord’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom.
Grains are, without question, the major source of carbohydrates in our diets. It is impossible to eat a “low-carb” diet and also make grains the “staff of life.” This has even led some well-meaning Latter-day Saints to redefine what the “staff of life” means, arguing that a staff is a crutch, something used only in time of weakness and necessity. This contradicts the use of the phrase “staff of life” throughout the long history of the English language where it has had a well-defined, consistent meaning referring to “bread (or similar staple food).” Recall that the word staple means “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption.” This is what the “staff of life” meant in Joseph Smith’s day and what it means in our day. The Lord ordained grains to be the staple foods of our diet, to hold the “chief place” among the foods we consume.
I’m grateful for the Word of Wisdom, which contains the counsel and guidance we need in today’s world to know what to consume and what not to consume so we can enjoy optimal health. In the past, our ancestors ate a diet largely of necessity, not of choice. In no other time in the history of humankind have we been able to so freely choose between so many harmful and healthful foods, therefore, in no other time have we been in such great need of these words of wisdom.
Wisdom Needed for Our Future Survival
While we know the Word of Wisdom is important in addressing the noncommunicable diseases today, it may be equally as needed to combat communicable diseases in the future. While there are many sources for infectious disease, historically, animals have been the primary source. Pathogenic biological agents (disease-causing bugs) have been transmitted to humans through our close and constant contact with the animals we raise, or in hunting wild animals for food. The medical community has laudably developed powerful antibiotics to combat these diseases; however the intense, relentless use of antibiotics and other drugs, particularly in efforts to stimulate growth and ward off disease in animals raised for food around the world, are having the side effect of creating superbugs, which are antibiotic-resistant. These superbugs may one day be more powerful than every pharmaceutical drug we throw at them.
In a recent study conducted by Consumer Reports on ground turkey, “90% of the samples had one or more of the five bacteria for which [they] tested” and “almost all of the disease-causing organisms . . . proved resistant to one or more of the antibiotics commonly used to fight them.” Consumer Reports linked the “speeding growth of drug-resistant superbugs” directly to the overuse of antibiotics in animals. While part of the problem is misuse in humans, as much as 70% of the antibiotics used in America are used for healthy animals to guard against the disease that easily breaks out in the types of disease-causing conditions where they are grown.
Due to the overuse of antibiotics, some of the dreaded 19th-century diseases are coming back in versions that are resistant to drugs. Tuberculosis kills more people than any other treatable infectious disease, but now, in some parts of the world, 25% of the cases of tuberculosis are the multidrug-resistant form. Over 23,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. More Americans succumb to antibiotic-resistant diseases than to HIV/AIDS.
At the same time this crisis is escalating, drug manufacturers are spending the bulk of their research dollars searching for drugs that treat noncommunicable diseases because the affluent can afford to make this research profitable. We don’t have to rely on drugs for illnesses that are largely preventable through diet and lifestyle, but some of the infectious diseases are lethal (even to affluent Americans) without drugs that work.
The Lord’s Promise
One of the great blessings of the Word of Wisdom is the precious promise of protection it includes:
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 89:21)
If we only consumed animals in times of need, we would not have to raise them in a way that generates the development of drug-resistant superbugs. If we ate a grain-based Word of Wisdom diet, we could dramatically increase our health and decrease human dependence on antibiotics, thus preserving their effectiveness for times when they are truly needed.
The Word of Wisdom was specifically designed for the “temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2, emphasis added). The counsel in the Word of Wisdom is not just for the saints in Joseph Smith’s day. God saw our day, and He designed this counsel for us.
There has never been a time in history when the Lord’s saints were in more need of these words of wisdom. Let’s make full use of the Lord’s counsel. Let’s return to grains as the staff of life.
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
The Lord told us “all grain is good,” but everyone else is telling us that “grain is bad,” that the wheat has “changed,” that gluten is the source of most of our dietary woes. Has Monsanto thwarted the word of the Lord? I will explore these issues next time.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution (New York: Rodale, 2012), chapter 1.
 Lester E. Bush Jr., “The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective,” Dialogue 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1981): 59.
 The diet of 19th-century Saints was certainly not perfect, but out of necessity, it was much more in line with the Word of Wisdom. They ate a whole foods diet. They consumed some animal foods, but grain, specifically wheat, was the “staff of life” or where they got the majority of their calories, and thus they were naturally more protected from some of the chronic diseases we find so prevalent today.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.” Last updated May 9, 2014.
 T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study (Dallas: Benbella, 2006), 191.
 “China’s Major Health Challenge: Control of Chronic Diseases,” The Lancet 378, no. 9790 (August 6, 2011): 457.
 World Health Organization (WHO), “Noncommunicable Diseases Fact Sheet,” (March 2013).
 “staff, n.1“Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).
 “staple, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.
 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).
 Richard Knox, “How Using Antibiotics In Animal Feed Creates Superbugs.” NPR The Salt, February 21, 2012. See also David Schardt, “Antibiotic Resistance: Wasting a Precious Saver.” Nutrition Action Healthletter, (May 2013): 9–11.
 “Talking Turkey: Our New Tests Show Reasons for Concern,” Consumer Reports (June 2013): 46.
 Gardiner Harris, “Administration Seeks to Restrict Antibiotics in Livestock.” The New York Times, July 13, 2009.
 World Health Organization (WHO), “Drug-resistant tuberculosis now at record levels,” (March 2010).
 Center for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013,” (April 2013).
 Todd Sperry, “New Push to Reduce Antibiotic Use in Farm Animals,” CNN, September 23, 2012.