This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.

In the last article, I asked an obvious question: if a Word of Wisdom diet really is as powerful as I claim, if it really can eliminate up to 80% of chronic illness, why aren’t these facts common knowledge? In my answer, I referred to D&C 89:3 where the Lord warns us of the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” The fact is, it is in no one’s financial interest to make the effort to teach us these truths. It is very difficult to “make money” off of promoting a Word of Wisdom diet! Why? The health is in the whole foods, but the money is in the processing of them.

What about All the Experts Who Disagree?

If you spend any time studying nutrition, you know how confusing it can be to discover how much of the “expert advice” is contradictory. There are so many diets and so many experts who claim they have “the truth,” and none of them seem to agree. With all the confusion, how can we trust that a whole food, plant-based diet is better than the rest?

I am persuaded that the bulk of scientific evidence clearly supports a low-fat whole food, plant-based diet, but not everyone is. There are plenty of experts who promote diets high in protein, fat, meat, and/or dairy. We are constantly bombarded by contradictory health claims, all supposedly backed by the “best science,” to the point where most of us have given up trying to make sense of it all.

Some experts (including the USDA and many in the field of nutrition) say science supports a diet that includes refined foods, meat, and other animal products.[1] They tell us junk food is fine in moderation. If you follow the guidelines set by the USDA and still suffer from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, or many other preventable chronic illnesses, they blame it on factors beyond food, like genetics, lack of exercise, or the environment. Even if they believe there is a healthier way to eat, they don’t exert much energy to promote it because they don’t believe people will dramatically change their diets; after all, most of these experts don’t want to dramatically change their diets either! So rather than promoting the healthiest diet, they teach “moderation.”

There are other experts who claim science promotes a diet very high in protein, who encourage consuming even more animal foods than the already high average Americans consume today.[2] There are even experts who believe “the science is clear” that the fewer carbohydrates we consume the better and that we cannot consume too much of the “right fats.” Some of these experts believe fatty meat, lard, butter, and coconut oil are “health foods.” [3]

There are also those who promote a totally “raw diet,” consisting of raw vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and “green smoothies.”[4] I love raw foods and the occasional green smoothie, but as good as some vegetarian diets are, grains and other starches often play a very small role, if any, in these diets while the percent of calories from fats can be quite high. There must be a reason why the Lord tells us that grains are “good” and are, in fact, the “staff of life” (D&C 89:14, 16). Without starchy foods, it is very hard to get enough calories on a plant-based diet unless one adds a large amount of high-fat foods like nuts, seeds, and oils. In small quantities, these foods range from healthful to relatively harmless, but as the percentage of fat in our diet increases, so do various physical problems, including, of course, weight gain.[5]

But Don’t These Experts Have “Evidence”?

For each diet, proponents have amassed a very tall stack of purported scientific evidence that supposedly confirms the efficacy of their diet. They have also collected testimonials from dozens of patients whose health has been “turned around” in some powerful way. They can cite epidemiological and clinical studies all pointing to the same conclusion. Each is sure they are right.

Why the confusion? One key is noticing how each of these diets incorporates some food choices that are at least somewhat in harmony with the Word of Wisdom as understood through a whole food, plant-based perspective:

  • Eating more whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Eating more fruits, vegetables, and/or green leafy vegetables.
  • Using fresh, locally produced plant foods “in season.”
  • Eliminating/reducing animal foods (or moving toward free-range, more naturally nourished animals for meat and animal products).
  • Cutting down on fat, or at least using better fats.
  • Eliminating highly refined foods, sometimes including vegetable oils.
  • Eliminating dairy.
  • Reducing the amount of junk food, sugar, and/or salt.
  • Eliminating tobacco and at least reducing alcohol, coffee, and other stimulants.

I believe most people promoting diets that are only partially in harmony with the Word of Wisdom are doing so out of a sincere belief that they have found the optimal diet. For the most part, they seem motivated by the desire to help others. Further, I believe many of them are helping others achieve better health. Most diets are somewhat successful in helping people lose weight, at least initially, and this alone can account for many positive changes. In addition, our Standard American Diet (SAD) is so unhealthy that a switch to almost any other diet can result in tremendous health benefits. But all the evidence in the world that suggests a particular diet is better than SAD is not evidence that the diet is optimal for human health!

Why wouldn’t these good people promote a more optimal diet? One answer may be that in a day where there are “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men” (D&C 89:3) it is hard to discern the truth. In addition, even if many of these experts sincerely desire to help others, it is human nature to be persuaded by our own financial interests. Don’t forget one conclusion from the previous article: it is very difficult to make money off of promoting an optimal health-promoting diet (for one thing, all your patients get well!). Trying to “make money” off of preaching the Word of Wisdom is not going to generate great wealth!

Since some readers may now wonder about my motives, please allow me to mention that I am making no money off of promoting the Word of Wisdom! Before publishing my book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective, I made the commitment to put ALL profits from the book into spreading the word about the Word of Wisdom so that I would not make a financial gain on any book sales. I did this because I understand that as pure as our motives may be, when we have a financial interest in a project, it fundamentally changes the nature of that project. I wanted this to be, instead, a labor of love.  Because I have a stable full-time job at Brigham Young University I had the luxury of making this decision (it is obviously not the right one for every author!). But the fact is there are very few people who can do what I do: donate dozens of hours every month to a cause that has no possibility of bringing a financial return.

So, thank goodness there are also a few who are blessing our lives as they try to make a career out of promoting a whole food, plant-based diet. It is difficult, and these people are not among the very wealthy, so their ability to get the word out is very limited. No wonder we don’t hear much about this message!

Why is Even the Scientific Literature Contradictory?

There are many reasons why even objective scientists find it difficult to speak with a unified voice on the subject of nutrition. First, the human body is complex and has an amazing ability to survive and even thrive on a variety of diets over long periods of time. This is a blessing from our Heavenly Father. But because of this complexity, it is extremely difficult, expensive, and logistically impossible to conduct the type of long-term studies required to definitively nail down each nutrition fact. As an example, we are unable to do the controlled experiments on humans that we do on the physical world, on man-made objects, or even on animals, making it impossible to totally isolate and control any one variable.

But perhaps even more fundamental to understanding this issue is understanding the problems inherent in trying to “isolate and control” human variables. Modern science privileges reductionism (believing the whole can be understood in terms of its parts) over holistic thinking (believing the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). Most studies focus on tiny slices of human biology, divorced from the context of the greater whole. This type of research inevitably results in seemingly contradictory results.[6]

Our bodies are complex holistic organisms that depend on the complex holistic benefits of consuming whole foods, foods that contain all the complexity that God and nature designed them to contain. The prejudice of modern science is to reduce the complexity of human health to a combination of single, isolated factors. This decidedly un-holistic approach vastly over-simplifies health and nutrition and inevitably leads to what appears to be profoundly contradictory bits of knowledge. While reductionist research has an important role to play in understanding nutrition, its dominance at the cost of every other approach primarily benefits the powerful food processing, drug, and supplement makers at the expense of good nutritional advice and the health and well-being of nearly everyone who consumes food.

Reductionist thinking is best suited for machines, where the whole is a sum of the parts. Biological systems are not like machines, and the human body is more than biology: the mind and body and spirit are all intertwined, and our souls are interconnected with the rest of the universe. These are just a few of the reasons why we probably should not wait until all the experts agree before we decide what to eat for our next meal!

Of course, all of the seemingly contradictory evidence does NOT mean that there is no consensus in the science of nutrition. Again, I am persuaded that the bulk of the scientific data clearly supports a low-fat whole food, plant-based diet, but I am not at all surprised there are many who disagree and who feel they have the scientific evidence to “prove it.” They may have excellent reasons for their beliefs, but we have the Word of Wisdom to help us sort fact from fiction. We have every right to be suspicious of any diet that is not in harmony with the word of the Lord!

Who Can We Trust?

With so many voices on nutrition, who can we trust? To be clear, I do not promote myself as an authority others should trust. And while I believe it is very important to seek out of the “best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), we should not put our trust in any “expert.” We are each blessed with good minds and good hearts. We have the scriptures, and we have the Spirit of God to help us evaluate the evidence. If our sincere desire is to know the truth, the Lord can work with us, wherever we are, to help us learn “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30). The key is (1) our sincere desire to know the truth; and (2) our willingness to live by whatever light the Lord gives us.

Earlier this month at General Conference, Elder Jörg Klebingat admonished us to:

Take responsibility for your own physical well-being. Your soul consists of your body and spirit (see D&C 88:15). Feeding the spirit while neglecting the body, which is a temple, usually leads to spiritual dissonance and lowered self-esteem. If you are out of shape, if you are uncomfortable in your own body and can do something about it, then do it![7]

Have you felt any promptings about how you can improve your diet, your exercise routine, or any other aspect of your lifestyle related to your physical well being? Write that bit of inspiration down! Commit to doing it. The Lord will help you, and by taking action, you will be opening yourself up to further light and knowledge from our Heavenly Father. He will teach you “line upon line, precept upon precept.”

Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom

Mormons, like many Americans, spend a lot of time and money on supplements and alternative health products. This is evidence enough that we value our health! But how useful are these alternative health products if we are disregarding the wisdom the Lord has already given us? Conversely, if we are following the advice in D&C 89, does that mean we can do away with all other health products? Next week I explore this interesting topic.

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.

Notes

[1] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, 7th Edition (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010).

[2] This is particularly true of the Paleo community. See authors such as Loren Cordain, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Art DeVany, and Boyd Eaton.

[3] See authors such as Robert Atkins, Michael Eades, Mary Eades, Sally Fallon, Steve Phinney, Jeff Volek, Eric Westman, and Gary Taubes.

[4] See authors such as Victoria Boutenko, David Wolfe, Douglas Graham, Paul Nison, and Natalia Rose. Some well-known raw food proponents are coming to recognize some drawbacks to a 100% raw diet. Some well-known raw food leaders have backed down from an all-raw diet after years of claiming that anything but raw food is harmful to our bodies. See Victoria Boutenko, Elaina Love, and Chad Sarno,Raw and Beyond: How Omega-3 Nutrition Is Transforming the Raw Food Paradigm (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2012).

[5] Like vegetable oils, nuts and seeds tend to have an unhealthy balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fats. For a balanced perspective on nuts, see: John A. McDougall, “Nuts Come in Hard Shells—for Reasons,” November, 2009. See also Jeff Novick, “Can’t Lose The Weight? It Could Be The Nuts,” July 26, 2012.

[6] T. Colin Campbell explores the impact of reductionist thinking on our understanding of nutrition in detail in his 2013 book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (New York: BenBella Books, 2013).

[7] Jörg Klebingat, “Approaching the Throne of God with Confidence,” LDS General Conference (October, 2014).