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 questioned the value of alternative health products. Since these are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, what role should they play in our quest for health? I concluded that many of these products are undoubtedly valuable, but that our search for health should begin with the manual of instructions given to us by our Creator: D&C 89. Doing so will not only endow us with better physical health, but also with the ability to be more in tune with the Spirit of the Lord so that He can guide us to any other health solutions we may need.
Is There One Ideal Diet?
I’ve been advocating a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) 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? How can there be just one diet that is optimal for everyone?
What about people who don’t deal well with some wholesome plants? Whether due to genetics, the environment, poor eating habits, or unhealthy lifestyles, some people do not deal well with certain whole foods. Some people are gluten intolerant. Some get sick when they eat fruits that are perfectly fine for other people. Some don’t like vegetables. Others don’t do well on beans or certain grains. With all this variation, shouldn’t we expect that different diets work best for different people? After all, it is a matter of fact that humans do survive on a wide variety of diets. Is there really a diet that is optimal for everyone, or do people vary too much from person to person?
First of all, let’s acknowledge that some people don’t do well on certain plant foods. The evidence for this point is clear. What is missing is evidence that animal foods, refined foods, or junk foods contribute to the optimal health of any individual in the long run. The fact that some people may “feel better” when they consume these products is no evidence of their healthful effects. There was a time when many Latter-day Saints felt their health required at least a little coffee, tea, alcohol or tobacco. From late 19th-century and early 20th-century LDS writings we know that some Saints didn’t “feel good” when they abstained from these substances. Likewise, some Saints claimed using these substances made them “feel better.” But what makes us feel good may not be a wise standard for what will help us enjoy good health in the long run.
The Word of Wisdom is Not Compatible with Every Diet
While the Word of Wisdom is not overly prescriptive, it does not appear to be compatible with all diets. Let’s review the three dietary principles:
- First the Lord asks us to use “wholesome” plants “in the season thereof” and to do so with “prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:10-11). Clearly this is better than a diet of unwholesome plants. Think fresh potatoes versus french fries or corn on the cob versus corn syrup or fruit versus Fruit Loops. When whole plants are processed, important nutrients are stripped away and additives are used to keep the new “food products” shelf stable well past “the season thereof.” How prudent is it to consume these highly processed foods in place of fresh wholesome plants that naturally contain all the nutrients needed for our “constitution, ature, and use” (D&C 89:10)?
Clearly, each of us has to decide how to interpret this counsel for our own lives. Each of us may come up with a slightly different list of unwholesome foods, but clearly whatever ends up on that list is not ordained of God for our “constitution, nature, and use.”
A diet filled with unwholesome/junk foods does not seem in harmony with the Word of Wisdom.
- The Lord asks us to use meat sparingly and only in times of need: winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger. Is this one-size-fits-all counsel? I think the Lord is being very flexible. He tells us to use meat sparingly, but He allows us to decide what that means. He does not command us to forego it altogether, but He does mention that it is “pleasing” to Him if we abstain from meat, except in times of need. Is this because He knows these things are bad for our bodies? Or the animals? Or the earth? We really aren’t sure of all the reasons why. Do we even need to know all the reasons why?
Regardless of how we interpret this counsel, a high-meat diet does not seem in harmony with the Word of Wisdom.
- The Lord tells us that “all grain is good” and ordained to be the “the staff of life.” “Staff of life” means the “staple” or foundation of our diet. Throughout history, the staple of a population’s diet has been the source for the bulk of the population’s calories and has almost invariably been a grain: wheat, maize, rice, etc. So grains are very important in the Lord’s eyes. But there are dozens of different grains to choose from!
A low-grain (or low-carb) diet does not seem to be in harmony with the Word of Wisdom.
I would argue that a diet focused on (1) fresh wholesome plants; (2) meat sparingly and only in times of need; and (3) grains as the staff of life, is a “whole food, plant-based diet.” Whether or not this is the only optimal diet, this is the only diet recommended by God for His saints in the last days. This is the diet we should eat with “prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:11).
The Word of Wisdom is Designed for One Type
We all differ in various ways; this includes differences in cultures, family traditions, our environment and financial resources, as well as in our individual tastes. And yet the Lord did not design a different Word of Wisdom for each of us. There must be a reason the Lord does not encourage us to just “eat right for your type.” Perhaps this is because the Word of Wisdom was primarily designed for one type—human beings.
Most animals have a particular diet that works well for them, and pet owners know what that diet is: cat owners do not feed their cats a diet of fruits and vegetables, nor do they feed chicken and fish to their rabbits. A Word of Wisdom designed for lions, tigers, or bears would differ from that designed for humans. It is a blessing that humans are able to subsist on a wide variety of diets in times of necessity because at certain times our choices have been limited. Today, we rarely face these limitations; we have a great deal of choice and are blessed to be told by our Creator the type of diet that works best for human beings so we can choose wisely.
While there is no doubt that certain people do not do well on certain plants, there are no particular plants mandated by the Word of Wisdom. Wheat is the only plant mentioned by name as being “for man,” but that comes with no specific mandate. We are told that all wholesome plants are for our use, and since there is a great variety of wholesome plant foods in the world, there is enough flexibility in the Word of Wisdom to allow for an extreme variety of food choices. Any number of people consuming a WFPB diet conforming to the Word of Wisdom could choose foods that differ quite remarkably from each other. The choices, variations, and combinations are literally infinite.
Before deciding our bodies need meat or processed/junk foods that have no resemblance to wholesome plants or that we can’t tolerate grains, perhaps it would be worthwhile to try to find a diet that both works for us as individuals and meets the standard given by the Word of Wisdom.
Finding a Diet that Works
How do you find a diet that works for you and your life? I think it starts with a commitment to follow the wisdom in D&C 89. Let the Lord know you are serious about following His counsel, and if you act on this commitment, this will open the floodgates of knowledge and skills that will come to you so you can discover how and what to eat in your journey toward better health.
Remember: no specific plant foods (e.g. cucumbers, pears, navy beans, or barley) are mandated by D&C 89. You don’t need to eat any food you don’t like or that does not agree with you! Instead, start with the wholesome “whole” plant foods you already enjoy.
Check out one of the many WFPB food sites or blogs to find recipes that look tempting!
Real Mormons • Real Stories
In this new section, I want to feature Latter-day Saints who have adopted a Word of Wisdom diet.
Dr. Victor Werlhof, MD, had a busy practice and little time to take care of himself. Soon he found himself overweight and not in good health. Years of yo-yo dieting ensued. After Vic and his wife joined the LDS Church, their diet took a nosedive. He recalls, “Our first ward activity revolved around red punch and Texas sheet cake . . . We decided that this must be the proper way to eat since these are an inspired people.” Then after being diagnosed with heart disease, it was the Seventh-day Adventists who taught him how to live the Word of Wisdom. Read his full story here.
If you have a story to share, please contact me here.
Inviting Your Comments and Questions!
In forthcoming articles, I plan to respond to comments and questions submitted by Meridian readers. Some of these comments have appeared at the conclusion of my previous articles, others have been sent directly to me. If you have a question you’d like me to address, I invite you to add your comment to this article or contact me directly.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Next time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom,” I’ll feature the promise in the Word of Wisdom which tells us that the “destroying angel shall pass by” those who keep these sayings. What might this say about how the Word of Wisdom could protect us against Ebola and similar plagues that may come in the last days?
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.
 Years of consuming substances damaging to our bodies may contribute to gluten intolerance. This includes animal foods (especially animal protein), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and antibiotics. Eliminating these substances, along with gluten and foods that are causing problems, can help the body to heal and may lead to being able to tolerate whole plant foods that were previously problematic. See Jane Birch, “Gluten, Wheat, Grain (and other food sensitivities).”
 In this article, I explore in detail many of the reasons why the Lord asks us to not use meat except in times of need. A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.
 In this short article, I explore the question, “What does it mean for grain to be ‘the staff of life’? Jane Birch, “The Staff of Life (D&C 89:14).”
 I am indebted to Dr. John McDougall for this thought.
 In this short article, I explore the question, “Why did the Lord single out wheat as being ‘for man’?” Jane Birch, “Why Wheat for Man? (D&C 89:17).”