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, I continued my discussion of 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). After exploring the consequences of displacing grain as the staff of life, I concluded that the Word of Wisdom is specifically designed for our day. Our day is the only time in history when so many people have the option of replacing grains with foods that the Lord did not ordain as the staff of life. It is also the only day when grains are under widespread attack. This is the day when we most need this wisdom.
In this article, I address the current critique of wheat. This subject is one that a great many thoughtful people feel passionate about, so I hope to contribute something useful to an important topic
What About Wheat?
For years now, people have been declaring, “wheat is bad.” This has caught on like wildfire. As of 2013, fully one-third of U.S. adults report wanting to cut down on or eliminate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In contrast, the Lord tells us:
All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life . . . All grain is good for the food of man . . . Nevertheless, wheat for man. (D&C 89:14, 16–17)
On the surface, it might seem that this counsel from God would inoculate Latter-day Saints against the idea that “wheat is bad,” but this is not the case. Latter-day Saints everywhere, including people near and dear to me, have gone “low-carb” or “Paleo” or “gluten-free.” I know from personal experience that these are among the most intelligent, spiritual Latter-day Saints I know, ones who have carefully read D&C 89 and believe wholeheartedly in the word of the Lord. The fact that such good people are persuaded to question the healthfulness of wheat is evidence enough that equally sincere people can have very different opinions on this topic.
I want to acknowledge that the case currently being made against gluten, wheat, and/or grains is one that many thoughtful people find persuasive. I also want to acknowledge that science has not assessed every claim. No one has all the answers, so of course I certainly do not have all the answers. Nevertheless, I would like to present an alternative way of thinking about this issue.
Some Truths are More Important than Other Truths
Sadly, some people do experience undeniable problems when they eat certain grains, especially wheat. This includes people with celiac disease but also those who are allergic to wheat or who may be gluten-intolerant or have some other negative reactions. Some reactions to wheat can be severe and even life-threatening, and nothing I write here should be interpreted to diminish the seriousness of these issues. My primary audience for this article is not the minority of people who have severe reactions to wheat but rather the vast majority who do not have a problem with wheat but who are beginning to wonder whether “wheat is bad” after all
Let me start with a few key points:
1) Not all truths are equally important. The truth that some people feel better without gluten is not nearly as important as the truth that up to 80% of all chronic illness can be resolved with a whole food, plant-based diet. With rare exceptions, following God’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom will make a MUCH bigger impact on our health than avoiding gluten or making similar “tweaks” to the diet. In this way, the current focus on being “gluten-free” can be a relative distraction for the vast majority of people.
2) I do not believe anyone must consume wheat in order to follow the counsel in D&C 89, although I do believe the Word of Wisdom asks us to do our best to make grains “the staff of life,” which means the chief part of our daily diet. If anyone does not currently do well consuming grains, it may be wise to reduce or eliminate these foods while continuing to follow the counsel in D&C 89 and seeking further light and knowledge from the Lord.
3) Last, if you are one of the few who currently do not tolerate wheat or other grains, do not feel bad about not consuming foods that make you feel bad, but I would encourage you to reconsider the idea of generalizing your dietary situation to other people and persuading them to believe that something God has ordained as “good” has been proven to be “bad” for everyone.
God Declared “All Grain” as “Good”
In the last decade, grain, especially wheat, has joined the distinguished list of things God has declared “good” that are currently under widespread attack by society:
The Ten Commandments
Marriage & Family
Wheat & Grains
Obviously “wheat” is in a different category than “marriage.” I certainly do not think that believing wheat is no longer healthy is a moral issue. But as Latter-day Saints, I think we should substantially raise the bar for any “evidence” that asserts something God has declared as “good” is now “bad.”
Much of the current attack against wheat and grain is part of the more general attack against “carbs” (or more properly, carbohydrates). We Latter-day Saints need to understand that this attack against carbohydrates is an attack against grains, the very food our God has ordained to be “the staff of life,” which means the chief part of the diet. Low-carb means low-grains because grains are inherently a high-carbohydrate food source.
Most low-carb and Paleo experts believe all grain has “always been bad” (which should be enough to make Latter-day Saints question their expertise on dietary topics), but for others, the mantra about wheat and other grains is that they have “changed.” Now we hear: they used to be good for us, but over the years, the hybridizations and other changes done by agronomists, scientists, and crop breeders has changed them so now our bodies can’t deal with this changed wheat.
The parallel Latter-day Saint argument says, “When the Word of Wisdom was revealed in Joseph Smith’s day, the grain was ‘good,’ but now the wheat has changed, so God’s counsel no longer applies.” Although this sounds like a reasonable hypothesis, I believe there are good reasons why we Latter-day Saints might want to look differently at this issue.
God Gave the Word of Wisdom to All Saints in the Last Days
It is common to believe that the wisdom in D&C 89 was meant primarily (if not exclusively) for the saints in Joseph Smith’s day. But please consider that God said specifically
A Word of Wisdom . . . showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days. (D&C 89:1–2, emphasis added)
The Word of Wisdom was given to “all saints in the last days.” Are we not Latter-day Saints? Did God not see our time and understand what the nature of the grains and our bodies and our environment would be? Did He not foresee the evils and designs of our time? No doubt God saw all these things, and He no doubt knew that grains (that which He ordained as the “staff of life” for His children) would come under special attack. Please consider that this might be exactly the reason why God gave these declarations in the Word of Wisdom to all saints in the last days:
I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation . . . All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life . . . All grain is good for the food of man . . . Nevertheless, wheat for man. (D&C 89:3, 14, 16–17, emphasis added.
Note that God didn’t say, “All grain in this century is good, but once we get to the next century, this counsel may no longer apply. Please check with the experts in that day for an update and search the Internet to figure out what to do next.”
The Word of Wisdom was designed for all saints in the last days to tell us how to eat to avoid the evils and designs of our time. God specifically singles out “wheat for man.” What good would this counsel do us if it only applied to the foods available in the 19th century? It doesn’t help us to be told that the wheat in 1833 was “good.” And the saints in the 19th century didn’t need to be told to make grains the staff of life; wheat was already the foundation of their diets. By this logic, the Lord’s counsel would have helped no one at all. At any rate, the saints in the 19th century had relatively little choice over what they ate. It was not until our day when we can so easily displace grains from our diets. This is the time when we most need this counsel from God.
I believe it is reasonable to conclude that God saw our day and that the counsel on grains and wheat in D&C 89 is precisely for us in our day.
No One Has “Proven” Gluten, Wheat, or Grains are “Bad”
I will be the first to acknowledge that there is much we do not understand about various foods, including gluten, wheat, and grains. Nutritional science is in its infancy. To its credit, the subject is intensely complex, and it has come a long way. I do not believe science will sort out all these issues in my lifetime—and possibly for many lifetimes. This is precisely why the Word of Wisdom is such a treasure for Latter-day Saints. We can’t wait for science to nail this one down; we need to make decisions about what to eat every day, three times a day. How wonderful that the Word of Wisdom can help us evaluate the truth among the many claims!
Although there is much we do not know, here are a few facts that are certain:
- No one has proven that grain or wheat or gluten are dangerous for the general population. Anyone who thinks science has “proven” that grains, or even today’s wheat, are inherently bad does not understand the standards of scientific proof.
- Presenting evidence that some individuals don’t do well on wheat and/or compelling hypotheses about why some grains are bad, is not scientific proof of anything generalizable. No amount of concrete evidence about how harmful wheat may be to certain individuals can be generalized to the whole population, or even a good percent of the whole population.
- Science has shown, time after time, the powerful health benefits of wheat and other grains and starchy foods for the general population. Historically, all large healthy populations have got the majority of their calories from grains and other starches.
- For these reasons, the burden of proof is on those who propose the new theories about the widespread harmfulness of wheat or other grains. What this means is that mainstream science is not responsible for disapproving every theory some expert or person on the Internet comes up with. Rather, those who wish to promote these new theories must establish their ideas using proven scientific methods and venues. So far, this simply has NOT been done. People who hypothesize widespread problems with wheat for the general population are making speculations, not scientific statements.
Science moves slowly. In the meantime, given that the evidence in favor of the health benefits of grains (including wheat) is so stronger, I believe Latter-day Saints should at least give the Lord the benefit of the doubt that He knew what He was doing when He told us, point blank, “all grain is good.”
Is Something Wrong With the Wheat or is it Our Ability to Handle the Wheat?
No food is perfect, but a healthy body can normally handle the imperfections of the wide variety of wholesome foods the Lord has ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). Then why do some people have problems with foods that are known to be health-promoting? This can be due to genetics, use of medications, or environmental factors, but it is primarily caused by a poor diet, the type of diet most Americans eat.
What we eat affects our bodies, in fact, changes our bodies. This happens in a variety of ways. For example, when we feed ourselves, we feed much more than our “own” human cells. We also support a huge number of bacteria and other microorganisms in our bodies. An interesting fact is that the type and variety of microorganisms in our body are largely determined by the diet we eat. It turns out that these microorganisms also support us: they are vital to digestion and many other bodily functions. And we are not talking about an insignificant number of these organisms. They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1!
A wholesome fiber-rich plant-based diet is more conducive to health-promoting gut flora. A diet comprised of highly processed foods and animal foods promotes a less healthy gut flora, and under these conditions, we may not have the right intestinal bacteria to aid us in processing certain wholesome foods in an optimal manner. This is not because the food is not wholesome but because our bodies have not been nourished properly.
Another example: it is well known that when people move from a nutritionally poor low fiber diet to a nutritionally rich high fiber diet, they can experience no small amount of gastrointestinal distress because their bodies are adapted to a low fiber diet. Although a quick switch to a high fiber diet can be exquisitely painful, it is certainly not evidence that fiber is “bad.” Fiber is highly health-promoting in a large number of ways. The pain is not a signal that the fiber is bad; it is simply the consequence of the body not having had a proper diet and therefore not being in a condition to handle the fiber well. The answer is not to give up high fiber foods (these are the most health-promoting foods). The answer is to transition a little more slowly. Fortunately, the body can and will adapt to a high fiber diet and be in much better health than ever before.
What happens when we eat a nutritionally poor diet and consequently our gut flora (along with our blood vessels, kidneys, adrenal glands, pancreas, and innumerable other parts of our bodies) are not in optimal condition? Well, we become more susceptible to a host of chronic diseases. We also become more sensitive to even some very healthy foods. A large number of people now find themselves sensitive to all kinds of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and yes, whole grains. Does that make these whole plant foods inherently “bad”? Certainly not. It is true that these people may need to eliminate some of these foods as long as it takes to heal their bodies, but to declare these foods “bad” is to put the cart before the horse.
While it is true that all plant (and animal) foods have changed over time (and some changes may not be entirely positive), what has changed even more is the total composition of our diets and thus the ability of our bodies to handle foods. Our unhealthy diets have a far greater impact on the ability of our bodies to digest certain grains than the fact that grains have changed over time. This is not to say it isn’t entirely possible that some of the changes in wheat and other grains have made it even more difficult for people with compromised constitutions to handle them well. But the primary problem is not the wholesomeness of the fruits, vegetables, or grains, but rather the condition of our bodies. It is not so much that the wheat has “changed” but that the ability of our bodies to handle the wheat has “changed.”
The answer is not to focus on eliminating wholesome foods (though that may be necessary at first), but to focus on healing our bodies by eliminating those foods that God has not ordained for our “constitution” or “nature” or that are not prudent to eat (D&C 89:10-16) so that we can eat the wholesome foods God has declared good.
I present this as just one possibility, among many others to consider. In a companion webpage, I list a few other points to consider, along with references to scientific studies for interested readers, and suggestions for those with wheat and other food sensitivities.
A Principle With Promise, Adapted to the Weakest of Saints
Many people, including many Latter-day Saints, feel they “must” eat animal foods and/or a variety of less than wholesome processed foods because their bodies “can’t handle” enough of the wholesome foods the Lord has ordained for our daily use. I think the Lord has given us a more excellent way. With 50,000 edible plants on this earth, I believe we would do well to find those wholesome foods that our bodies can handle and eliminate all those that are not in harmony with the principles in the Word of Wisdom. After all, the Lord declared that the Word of Wisdom is “given for a principle with promise” (D&C 89:3). That is, we have the Lord’s word on this!
Moreover, the Word of Wisdom is—
adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints. (D&C 89:3)
If you are one whose physical constitution is among the “weak” or even the “weakest of all saints,” take heart: the Lord has adapted these words of wisdom to your capacity, and if you follow them, the blessings He promises are surely meant for you.
Whether you are sensitive to wheat or not, I encourage all of us to prayerfully study the Word of Wisdom and to apply the counsel. You may choose to focus on non-gluten grains, or try ancient wheat varieties, or more traditional ways of preparing the wheat. But regardless, I encourage you to continue to make grain the “staff of life.” The only real alternatives to making grain the staff of life are to make animal foods and/or processed foods the staff of life. These choices are definitely worse and are not defensible, scientifically or scripturally.
Since most stories of wheat intolerance are anecdotal, it may be useful to know that there are many people who have totally resolved their former intolerance to gluten-containing grains (and other whole food intolerances) by switching over to a fully whole food, plant-based diet and allowing their bodies to heal. Admittedly, this will not be the case for everyone. Some may never be able to enjoy wheat (and should not feel guilty about that!), but again, this is a small fraction of the population.
“Come now and let us reason together”
Every generation of Latter-day Saints has discounted parts of the Word of Wisdom because the surrounding culture and/or contemporary experts told them differently, and each time they have been proven wrong. I would caution us all that we are probably not any different. As compelling as certain evidence may seem, I believe as the truth is revealed the deeper wisdom of God’s words will be proven over and over again, even thought the final resolution may be much different than any of us (including myself!) suppose right now.
Jesus refers to Himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:35) because wheat is a staple food, not just a side dish. It is nourishing to the physical body just as coming unto Jesus is nourishing to our souls. Grains make up about 80% of the world’s food supply. Just three grains, rice, maize, and wheat, provide over 50% of the world’s food energy intake. Wheat alone supplies about 20% of the world’s calories. It is the staple food for 35% of the world’s population. For the vast majority of God’s children on earth, grain, including wheat, is the staff of life. I believe we displace it at our peril, but I more strongly believe this issue should not divide Latter-day Saints. We all believe in God’s words. We all believe in the Word of Wisdom. May we all continue to do our best to “remember to keep and do these sayings” (D&C 89:18).
Visit the companion webpage: Gluten, Wheat, Grain (and other food sensitivities).
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
The Lord set some conditions on our use of the “flesh of beasts and the fowls of the air,” but what about dairy and eggs? The Word of Wisdom does not specially address either. Does that give us the green light to consume these animal foods, or do the principles set forth by the Word of Wisdom give us clues as to what would be wise to do in regard to these foods?
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.
 Celiac disease affects up to 1% of the population and appears to have risen over time. Similarly, roughly 1% of the population is allergic to wheat. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is harder to calculate as it has not been clinically defined (currently it is a self diagnosis), nor have tests been standardized, but good estimates range from under 1% to possibly as high as 6% of the population.
 I use the word “gluten” here because it is the substance most people identify as the main problem, but it is not at all clear that gluten is the actual problem, even for those who report consistent sensitivity to foods with gluten. It could well be some other substance in the wheat (or in combination with other foods) that is the trigger. Note that the most careful study done to date “failed to confirm patients with self-perceived NCGS have specific gluten sensitivity” (Jessica R. Biesiekierski, Jane G. Muir & Peter R. Gibson, “Is Gluten a Cause of Gastrointestinal Symptoms in People Without Celiac Disease?” Current Allergy and Asthma Reports 13 (2013): 631–638. See also a report of the same study in the popular press by Steven Ross Pomeroy, “Gluten Intolerance May Not Exist,” Forbes (May 15, 2014).
 The “staff of life” is an English idiom. An idiom is “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own” (Merriam-Webster). Some well-meaning Latter-day Saints have attempted to use one of the words in this idiom to interpret the idiom as a whole, thus misunderstanding how an idiom functions in our language. They point out that a staff is a support, a type of crutch, something used only in time of weakness and necessity, and they conclude that grain as the “staff of life” is to be used only as a support, in times of need, and not as a staple food. But as the definition of the word idiom explains, you can’t understand the meaning of an idiom by focusing on the separate words in the idiom, because the idiom as a whole has its own meaning, apart from the separate words. Think of other idioms in our language; they are unintelligible by simply studying the meaning of the individual words: “open a can of worms” or “strings attached” or “go postal” or “pulling your leg” or “had a cow.” It does little good to simply study the individual words; you have to understand the idiom as a whole by studying how it is used. The idiom “staff of life” is the same. It cannot be understood by simply defining what the word “staff” means and then hypothesizing the meaning of the idiom. We understand the idiom by seeing how it has been used. Scholarly research clearly shows that the idiom “staff of life” has had a well-defined, consistent meaning throughout the long history of the English language. It clearly refers to a “staple food” (Oxford). The word staple means “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption” (Oxford). The Oxford English Dictionary illustrates this with examples beginning in 1638, but you can search the phrase “staff of life” on-line and find the same results (be sure to place quote marks around the phrase when you search for it). When the Lord ordained grain to be the “staff of life,” he declared that grains should hold the chief place among the foods we consume. Some people are persuaded that soaking, sprouting or fermenting grains is better, and that may be fine, as long as the bulk of calories in the diet are still are coming from grains. Grains include grasses like wheat and rice, but corn and legumes (like beans, lentils and other pulses) can technically also be classified as grains. Other high-starch foods like roots/tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams and taro) are also staple foods in various parts of the world.
 Grains are, without question, the major source of carbohydrates in the food system. Anyone eating a “low-carb” diet is deliberately choosing to not make carbohydrates an important part of their diet. Therefore, by definition, a low-carb diet is a diet where grains are not being used as “the staff of life.”
 Wheat, like every food item currently available, has changed over the centuries. It is impossible to purchase or even grow any food as it was first created by God. All have undergone substantial natural and/or human-induced development. There are many types of changes and only a few of these changes make a food GMO (a “genetically modified organism”). These foods are a particular concern for many, but please note that “there are no GMO-type (genetically engineered) wheats used commercially in the United States” (Donald D. Kasarda, “Can an Increase in Celiac Disease Be Attributed to an Increase in the Gluten Content of Wheat as a Consequence of Wheat Breeding?” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 61 (2013): 1155−1159.). GMO wheat is not the issue because we don’t have GMO wheat in the United States (notwithstanding plenty of misinformation on the Internet and even from experts). US farmers have insisted on this to not damage their ability to sell their wheat to countries that don’t allow GMO foods. Also see this NPR report and the follow-up to it.
 For an interesting read on the role of grains (and more generally starch) in the human diet, see John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution (New York: Rodale, 2012). You can also watch Dr. McDougall present on the importance of starch foods (the chief of which is grains). See also the Whole Grains Council’s “Health Studies on Whole Grains,” a collection of about 200 research articles documenting the benefits of whole grains.
 This is not to say there might not be some inedible grain somewhere in the world that is not good for humans to eat.
 John A. McDougall, “For the Love of Grains,” The McDougall Newsletter (January 2008).
 Lawrence A. David, et al., “Diet Rapidly and Reproducibly Alters the Human Gut Microbiome,” Nature 505 (23 January 2014): 559–563. See also a report in the popular press, Michaeleen Doucleff, “Chowing Down On Meat, Dairy Alters Gut Bacteria a Lot, and Quickly,” NPR The Salt (December 11, 2013).
 Liping Zhao, “The Tale of Our Other Genome,” Nature 465 (June 17, 2010): 879–880.
 Liping Zhao, “My Microbiome and Me,” Science 336 (June 8, 2012); Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Are Happy Gut Bacteria Key to Weight Loss?” Mother Jones (April 22, 2013); Michael Greger, “Boosting Good Bacteria in the Colon Without Probiotics,” NutritionFacts.org (August 29, 2012). See also references in footnote 9.
 Diana Rodriguez, “Getting Fiber Without Excessive Gas,” Everyday Health (September 14, 2011).
 Cynthia Harriman, “Wheat – Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” Whole Grains Council (October 16, 2013).
 See, for example, the following research article I published which analyzes the way D&C 89:13 has been interpreted over time, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom.” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 11 (2014): 1-36. This article is based on my analysis of the Word of Wisdom literature from 1833 to 2014, a fascinating experience! Without fail, Latter-day Saint authors interpret the Word of Wisdom through the lens of their current dietary environment, although some of what is believed at the time later turns out to be incorrect. This should not be surprising. How else can we see the world except through the language and culture of the society we live in? This certainly makes me feel quite humble about my claims, and I look forward to learning to see things in new ways, as these ways are revealed.