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.
I’ve been addressing some of the discouraging thoughts that can dissuade us from trying a Word of Wisdom diet. Below, I’ve linked to the two topics I’ve already discussed:
- Taste: These foods won’t be yummy, and I’ll be unhappy.
- Convenience: It takes too much time to prepare healthy foods.
- Nutrition: A whole food, plant-based diet will be deficient in vital nutrients.
- Social Pressure: No one else eats this way, so this will be too hard or awkward.
- Comfort: I love my current diet and can’t imagine life without the foods I love best.
- Procrastination: Great idea, but I need to wait until I have time or energy to do this.
Today I address the third challenge: getting the nutrients we need on a whole food, plant-based diet.
Plant-based Diets Get Bad Press
We are constantly bombarded by media messages telling us we need more protein, more iron, more calcium, more “healthy fats,” and so on. Mention going without animal foods, and you’ll hear a chorus of protests about how “scary” or “unhealthy” such a diet is! And yet the Lord tells us He is pleased if we do not consume the flesh of animals except in times of need: winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger (D&C 89:13, 15).
Why would the Lord encourage us to avoid meat as a regular part of our diet if, as we are taught, animal foods are an important part of a balanced meal? Where can we get the nutrients to be healthy and strong if we don’t regularly consume meat? Aren’t there certain nutrients we must get from animals in order for our bodies to function optimally?
Where Do Nutrients Come From?
It is common to hear experts talk about specific nutrients coming from specific types of foods: meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, etc. Given this rhetoric, it is not surprising that most people are thoroughly confused about the origin of the nutrients needed by the human body.
Here are two compelling facts. Except for Vitamin B12 (which comes from bacteria) and Vitamin D (a hormone synthesized via sunlight):
- ALL of the nutrients needed by the human body originate in PLANTS.
- NONE of the nutrients needed by the human body originate in ANIMALS.
This does not mean there are no nutrients in animal foods, but the animals do not create these nutrients. The animals get all their nutrients from PLANTS. All nutrients originate from the wholesome plants God created, and all humans and animals are dependent on these plant foods for life. Without plants, there can be no animals or humans.
Food science expert Harold McGee explains:
Unlike animals, plants can synthesize organic materials from the minerals, air, and sunlight, and so they are the true origin of the proteins, carbohydrates, and other complex molecules necessary to animal life.
Plants are the original dietary source of all the nutrients needed by our bodies:
- All the essential amino acids needed to build protein.
- All the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6).
- All carbohydrates (the human body’s preferred fuel source).
- All the required vitamins or building blocks needed to produce the vitamins (except vitamins B12 or D, neither of which is created by plants or animals).
- All the essential minerals (which plants absorb from the soil).
In addition, plants provide a rich abundance of other nutrients that produce optimal human health. For example,
- Phytochemicals, including antioxidants (thousands of phytochemicals function in various ways to fight disease and maintain health in our bodies).
- Fiber (essential for bodily functions, eliminating toxins, and healthy weight).
- Water (next to oxygen, the most essential element to life; food high in water helps cleanse the body and maintain healthy weight).
Not only do plants provide the nutrients needed for optimal health, they naturally provide these nutrients in the proportions needed by our bodies. Given the total number of calories required to build and fuel our bodies, we need no more than 10 percent of our calories from proteins and no more than 10 percent of our calories from fats. If we consumed all plant foods and no animal foods, almost any plant-based diet (aside from an all-fruit diet) would still consist of at least 10 percent protein and 10 percent fat. In others words, assuming we are getting an adequate number of calories, plants naturally contain all of the proteins and fats required for optimal health, without our having to go to special lengths to make sure we are getting enough in the right combinations.
Plants are perfect for our bodies! No wonder they are ordained of God for the “constitution” and “nature” of His children (D&C 89:10).
Animals Foods Are a Backup Source of Nutrition
If plants provide all that is needed to not only sustain human life but also to optimize our health, what is the role of animal flesh in our diet? Like us, animals get their essential nutrients from plants. Even the carnivorous animals at the top of the food chain are totally dependent on plant foods, as plants are the beginning of the food chain.
But like us, most animals can get all the nutrients they need for optimal health from a vegetarian diet. The largest land mammals on the planet are all herbivores. We are talking about elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippopotamuses, and water buffalo; these astonishingly huge creatures eat only plants! Humans are omnivores; we can get our nutrients from both plants and animals, but animal foods are completely optional for human nutrition. The fact that plants alone can nourish the largest, strongest land animals should help us understand how an all-plant diet can grow and maintain our much smaller human bodies.
As animals eat plants, vital nutrients become part of their bodies. Therefore, in times of necessity, when we humans can’t get enough plants to sustain life (for example, in times of famine or excess cold when plants are scarce), we can eat animals as a backup source of nutrition. They have enough of the essential nutrients in their bodies, along with the needed calories, to sustain our lives in times of need.
Getting Our Nutrients from Animal Foods Comes at a Price
In times of need, we can get calories and nutrients by eating animal foods, but this comes at a price since the nutrients in them are not packaged ideally for regular human consumption. For example, when we get our nutrients from animal foods, they come with:
- Too much cholesterol (the human body produces all the cholesterol we need to function optimally, so any animal cholesterol is in excess of our needs and large quantities can be detrimental to our health).
- Too much protein (extra animal protein forces our livers and kidneys to work harder to process the excess, increases the acid load in our bodies, and creates an environment more conducive to cancer growth).
- Too much fat (and usually the wrong types of fat—saturated fat instead of the healthier unsaturated fats, like omega 3).
- Too few of most essential nutrients: vitamins and minerals.
- Too much of some nutrients (like iron, which is more easily absorbed when packaged in animal foods, contributing to various chronic illnesses)
- No phytochemicals (“phyto” means plants; they help us maintain health).
- No carbohydrates, aside from lactose (100 percent of meat calories come from protein and fat).
- No dietary fiber (a lack of fiber in the diet promotes constipation and fatigue and diminishes healthy gut bacteria).
- Too many hormones, antibiotics, etc. (both natural hormones and drugs given to animals to make them grow fast and keep them from getting sick).
- Too many pollutants, microbes, pesticides, herbicides, etc. (these get concentrated in animal foods because they are higher-up on the food chain).
Plants contain all the advantages with none of these disadvantages. In short, animal foods are in no way more ideal for the human body than plant foods, but they are a good backup source of nutrition. Perhaps this is one reason the Lord ordained the flesh of animals for our “use,” but He did not ordain them for the “constitution” or “nature” of our bodies, as He did plants! (Study the difference between verses 10 and 12 in D&C 89.)
In our society, we grow up believing animal foods are essential and even healthy. This makes us happy because we enjoy the taste of these rich foods. It makes the meat and dairy industry happy because they profit handsomely from our consumption of them. Unfortunately, a diet based on animal foods is a major source of physical illness in our society, because animal foods are not designed as the primary fuel for our bodies. Eating them on a regular basis is not healthy for us (not to mention the animals!).
Would the Lord Recommend a Deficient Diet?
The Lord Himself told us He is “pleased” if we do without meat except in times of need. Would He recommend a diet that is “scary” or “unhealthy”? Of course not! And yet most of us seem to need a lot more proof than God’s word on the subject. I’m afraid I’m not any different as I did not think of changing my diet until I was thoroughly convinced by the scientific evidence that it is better for human health. Only then did I discover that the Lord had already told us as much.
The science is very clear: a healthy plant-based diet not only provides enough nutrition, it provides superior nutrition compared to a diet that includes animal and/or processed foods! True, you’ll find plenty of “contradictory” evidence in every nook and cranny of the Internet, but if you do the research with a desire to embrace the truth, you’ll find it.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
I find it humorous that people have started using the word “protein” to mean “meat,” as though meat is the only source of protein. In truth, meat is only a derivative source of protein. Would it surprise you to learn that all plants contain protein, including all vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and even fruit? In fact, protein is so ubiquitous in plant foods that if you get a sufficient number of calories, it is almost impossible to not get more than enough protein, including all the essential amino acids. This applies to athletes as well!
The largest study ever done of vegetarians compared people who eat meat with those who do not. Unsurprisingly, they found that meat eaters get far more protein than they need. But the exact same result is true of every sort of vegetarian they studied, including those who ate no animal foods of any kind: they all consumed far more protein than is needed. In short, it is rare in our society for anyone to not get enough protein. And yet we are constantly being told which foods have more protein, as if we were deficient!
For more about protein and a whole food, plant-based diet, see: “Where Do You Get Your Protein?”
What About Other Nutrients?
What about iron? Calcium? Omega-3 fatty acids? And the host of other nutrients our bodies need? Is a plant-based diet adequate?
Not only is a plant-based diet adequate, it is clearly superior. Remember: plants are the source of all macro and micro-nutrients. Animals are not the original source of a single human nutrient. According to the American Dietetic Association, a healthy whole food, plant-based diet provides all of the nutrients needed for human health, at every stage of life. Yes, it takes a little thought to choose a “healthy” plant-based diet, but that is true whether or not you consume animal/processed foods.
A “Vegetarian” or “Vegan” Diet is not Necessarily Healthy
Let me be clear: not every plant-based diet is created equal. Labeling something as “vegetarian” or even “vegan” says NOTHING about how “healthy” that diet is. Animal foods are not the only unhealthy parts of our standard American diet. There are plenty of junk vegan foods, like potato chips, Coke, French fries, Twizzlers, and Oreo cookies.
While many research studies show some health benefits of eating a “vegetarian/vegan” diet, others do not. The results are mixed. Why? Because a person can easily eat an unhealthy plant-based diet.
A whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet is very different than a junk food vegetarian diet. It doesn’t just exclude most (if not all) animal foods, it also excludes most (if not all) processed/junk foods. It focuses on the most nutrient dense foods in the world, the wholesome plants the Lord ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10).
Far from being deficient, a healthy whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet is nutritionally superior. It can prevent or cure up to 80% of all chronic disease. No doubt God knew what He was taking about!
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
OK, so a plant-based diet is nutritionally sound, so that should not be an impediment to trying a Word of Wisdom diet. But what about the fact that no one else eats this way? Wouldn’t eating a diet so different be hard and awkward? What do you do if friends and family eat a much different diet? Unlike the question of nutrition, this is a genuine challenge any plant-based eater faces. Next week, I’ll address this topic, giving my best suggestions.
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.
 Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), 123.
 Vitamin D requires sunlight (or, less commonly, sun-exposed mushrooms). Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria. B12 is found in most animal foods (from the bacteria in the gut of the animal), but it is largely absent from our plant foods, partly due to modern sanitation. Even people who consume animal foods can test low in Vitamins D and B12. Current science suggests that people who abstain from all animal foods should take a B12 supplement. People who do not get enough sunlight to produce enough Vitamin D should also consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
 T. Colin Campbell, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (New York: BenBella Books, 2013), 254.
 Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, Keep It Simple, Keep It Whole: Your Guide to Optimum Health (Los Angeles: Exsalus Health & Wellness Center, 2009). See chapter 8, “Protein” and chapter 11, “Fats and Oils.”
 You can test the amount of amino acids (along with total protein, fats, and carbohydrates) in foods yourself using a handy nutrition calculator: Cron-o-meter.
 Michael Greger, “Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?” NutritionFact.org (June 6, 2014).
 American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” 2009.
 Joan Sabate, “The Contribution of Vegetarian Diets to Health and Disease: A Paradigm Shift?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(suppl) (2003): 502S–07S.