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 explored several reasons why so much of the dietary advice we receive contradicts each other. My conclusion was that every diet has some benefits, but most are not in complete harmony with the Word of Wisdom, and we have every right to be suspicious of any diet that contradicts the word of the Lord. We are so fortunate to have D&C 89 to help us sort fact from fiction!
What about Supplements and Alternative Health Products?
Mormons, like many Americans, spend a lot of time and money on supplements and alternative health products. Speaking personally, I am astonished when I recall the time and energy I have expended throughout my life searching for the right solutions to various health issues. When I look around me, I see others expending the same effort in this never-ending search for answers. We usually take our health for granted, but when we lose it, we suddenly have no greater priority.
I now wonder why I expended so much energy searching for health solutions while at the same time ignoring much of the counsel the Lord had already provided. Perhaps I felt I was “keeping the Word of Wisdom” and so didn’t need to further study D&C 89. Perhaps I figured if the rest of the counsel was important, some Church leader would tell me so. Perhaps I read the verses and just hoped I wasn’t expected to change my diet!
I’m not sure of all the reasons why I didn’t take the dietary counsel in D&C 89 seriously, but it doesn’t seem wise of me to have ignored the counsel the Lord has given us on how to care for our bodies when I had health issues related to how well my body was functioning. If anything we owned was not working, would we ignore the owner’s manual? What does it say about us if we chase after all kinds of health answers beforewe’ve embraced the counsel the Lord has already given us? How can we pray with sincerity for additional guidance if we are ignoring the guidance we’ve been given?
I’m sure most readers would agree with this argument so far, but intellectual agreement is not the same as willingness to change. The fact is: it is not easy to change one’s diet. For most people, the challenge seems daunting enough that they’d much rather explore various health products or procedures, hoping to restore health without making dietary sacrifices. Most of us (including me!) prefer an easy solution to a difficult one.
And why not take the easy route? Why not just get our nutrition from all the amazing health supplements that are so readily available and continue to enjoy a diet of meat and processed foods?
The Amazing Properties of Whole Plants and the Problem with Health Supplements
To tell the truth: I’d rather pop a pill than change my lifestyle if they two worked equally as well! But do they? Consider where all the nutrients needed for health come from. They come from the earth, and God prepared the perfect way for these nutrients to get into our bodies: wholesome plants. As plants grow, they naturally embody a bewildering synthesis of amazing properties. As Michael Pollan explains:
. . . even the simplest food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another.
Our bodies are designed to draw the nutrients they need from whole plants. It is an intricate and complex process that scientists are just beginning to understand. If you had to consciously tell your body what to do with each molecule of the plants you ingested, how far would you get? It might surprise you to know that even the most knowledgeable experts would not get much farther than you (at least relative to the enormity of the task). The effort, as Colin Campbell explains, is simply too complex:
Every apple contains thousands of antioxidants whose names, beyond a few like vitamin C, are unfamiliar to us, and each of these powerful chemicals has the potential to play an important role in supporting our health. They impact thousands upon thousands of metabolic reactions inside the human body. But calculating the specific influence of each of these chemicals isn’t nearly sufficient to explain the effect of the apple as a whole. Because almost every chemical can affect every other chemical, there is an almost infinite number of possible biological consequences. And that’s just from an apple.
Despite this complexity, our bodies know just what to do with the amazing molecules in the wholesome plants we eat. But when manufacturers take these same whole plant foods and break their elements apart, process and refine them, and recombine them according to their limited understanding of how things work, they can sell them at a higher price, but they have definitely NOT improved on God’s work!
No wonder study after study has failed to prove that regular intake of health supplements has a positive impact on quality of life! Our bodies are not designed to consume health products; they are designed to consume whole foods. And when given the nutritional support of these amazing wholesome plants, our bodies are superbly capable of handling most of the health challenges sent their way.
The Allure of the “Easy Fix”
No doubt some health products are useful, even invaluable for certain needs. God is very generous; surely He is willing to bless us in any number of ways, and our bodies seem to respond to many modalities.
But there does seem to be a danger in pinning our hopes on products and procedures: it leads us to believe we can forego the harder work of fundamentally changing our diet or lifestyle. Even if tiny amounts of expensive products have a positive impact on our health in the short-run, how likely is it that these benefits would consistently outweigh the impact of consuming four to five pounds of nutrient-poor foods day in and day out?
The allure of the “easy fix” also leaves us susceptible to a cacophony of health claims from people who stand to profit from our intense longing to feel better. Sadly, it is in too many people’s financial interest to keep us confused so they can sell us products that are better for their pocketbooks than for our health. Of course most of the people selling health products are good people. They have the best of intentions. I don’t doubt that some of their products may be very useful under certain conditions, but does it make sense that the daily health of God’s children would depend on expensive products that must be special ordered or on hi-tech gadgets that have only become available during the last fifty years?
Processed “Health” Products are Not “Better”
Unfortunately, the natural health industry seems plagued with some of the same problems that the pharmaceutical industry is plagued with:
- Neither can make enough profit by selling us nutrients the way God designed them to be consumed (in the whole food).
- In order to make a good profit, both must find ways to improve on God’s designs, which are spectacularly complex systems that are far beyond our present (or near-term) ability to comprehend.
- Both are willing to use poorly executed research to promote their products and hide findings that are detrimental to their cause.
- Neither understands the human body well enough to anticipate the full effect (including side effects) of the products they recommend.
The same reductionist thinking that drives the pharmaceutical industries is all too evident in the natural, even holistic, health product industries. As Colin Campbell explains:
The natural health community has also fallen prey to the ideology that chemicals ripped from their natural context are as good as or better than whole foods. Instead of synthesizing the presumed “active ingredients” from medicinal herbs, as done for prescription drugs, supplement manufacturers seek to extract and bottle the active ingredients from foods known or believed to promote good health and healing. And just like prescription drugs, the active agents function imperfectly, incompletely, and unpredictably when divorced from the whole-plant food from which they’re derived or synthesized.
Why would extracting nutrients from plants, or synthesizing them into supplements somehow be better for us than consuming the original foods in the way God and nature designed them?
I’m grateful we have many health options to choose from. I am certain some health products have powerful properties and some healers have special gifts that can bless us, but I am convinced we should begin our search for better health by choosing to follow the Word of Wisdom.
How Do We “Choose” the Word of Wisdom?
Take a close, prayerful look at the dietary counsel in D&C 89. Note that this counsel contains three main dietary principles:
1. All wholesome plants “in the season thereof” are ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use,” and should be used with “prudence and thanksgiving.” (D&C 89:10–11)
2. Animal flesh is ordained for human use, but it should be eaten sparingly, and it is pleasing to the Lord if it is not used, except in times of need: “times of winter, or of cold, of famine” and “excess of hunger.” (D&C 89:12–13, 15)
3. All grain is good and is ordained to be the “staff of life.” (D&C 89:14, 16)
Are you eating the wholesome plants in the season thereof that God created or the unwholesome highly processed products created by the food or health food industries? Which would be more prudent? Which has the Lord ordained for our use?
How sparing is your use of animal foods? Would you be willing to try to save them for times of need? How might pleasing the Savior help us hear His voice and come to know Him?
Are grains the staple of your diet, the “staff of life”? Do you consistently choose the wholesome grains that contain the full spectrum of health benefits? Or have you bought into über popular anti-grain, anti-wheat rhetoric? (If you are one of the few who does doesn’t do well on wheat, have you found other whole grains you can make the foundation of your diet?)
What if the Word of Wisdom is not Enough?
While a Word of Wisdom diet can resolve a large percent of our common health issues, no one I know claims it resolves ALL health issues. In fact, health problems seem to be an important way the Lord teaches us precious lessons. But consider what a firm foundation living the Word of Wisdom is to helping us find additional answers! Elder Boyd K. Packer taught:
Our physical body is the instrument of our spirit. In that marvelous revelation, the Word of Wisdom, we are told how to keep our bodies free from impurities which might dull, even destroy, those delicate physical senses which have to do with spiritual communication. The Word of Wisdom is a key to individual revelation.
It is not just alcohol and tobacco that dull our senses, high-fat, high-sugar, highly processed foods can do the same! The more we embrace this counsel from God, the more in tune we are with our own bodies and with the Spirit of the Lord. By choosing the Word of Wisdom, we put ourselves in a position to find the “great treasures of knowledge” promised in D&C 89:19.
But what if we aren’t ready to embrace the counsel in D&C 89 fully? What if we find our addiction to animal foods and processed foods too strong at present? Or what if we are sincerely confused about the type of diet the Lord is recommending in the Word of Wisdom? If so, is there no hope of us finding answers to our health concerns?
In my opinion, no.
I sincerely believe the Lord will bless us to the extent that we seek Him, and He will try to help us in whatever way we are willing to receive. I do not doubt but that He can and does guide many of His children to various health solutions not found in the Word of Wisdom. There is no question in my mind but that He has led many of us to many different health modalities that have proven useful. On the other hand, just because a solution we feel guided to is an important part of our personal journey, does not mean that solution is the ultimate answer for our health . . . much less the health of everyone else. There are yet more “treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (D&C 89:19) to be found . . . as we continue to seek for wisdom.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
I’ve been advocating a whole food, plant-based diet as though it is the ideal diet for everyone, but is that true? Aren’t we all individuals with different bodies and different health needs? Isn’t it true that some people do better on certain foods than others? How can there be just one diet that is ideal for everyone? Next time I will 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.
 Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin Books), 62.
 T. Colin Campbell, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (New York: BenBella Books, 2013), inside book jacket.
 Campbell discusses these issues very well in Whole.
 Campbell, Whole, 151.
 Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation In A Changing World” (Ensign, October 1989).