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 few weeks, I’ve been addressing comments and questions from readers. Recently, I’ve focused on verse 13 of Section 89:
And it is pleasing unto me that they [beasts and of the fowls of the air] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. (D&C 89:13)
Last week, I concluded a two-part series addressing one inexplicably popular understanding of this verse: the assertion that the comma between the words used and only, which was added in 1921, changed the meaning of the text. I demonstrated why this “errant comma theory” should not be considered among the valid contenders for a legitimate interpretation of D&C 89:13. In short, the comma added in 1921 did not change the meaning of the verse; Church leaders have always read the word only to mean except, with or without the comma. However, the meaning of the word only changed over time, making the added comma useful to helping modern readers retain the original sense of the word.
If the “errant comma theory” is not plausible, what does D&C 89:13 mean? Plenty of interpretations have surfaced in the last few decades. Historically, most LDS writers have assumed that the reason the Lord counseled the Saints to not eat meat, except in times of winter or cold, is that this is better for the human body. Not all of their explanations have been tied to scientific evidence, however. For example, in 1865 one author asserted:
The eating of much flesh in a warm climate, besides other evils, produces drowsiness, which leads to the breaking of another commandment . . . which teaches us to “arise early.”
This week, I’ll discuss the health-related interpretations that have proven most popular from an historical perspective: (1) Meat creates heat in the body and so it should be consumed in the winter and cold, rather than in the heat and summer; (2) Meat has more calories, which humans need more of in the winter than the summer; and (3) Meat is hazardous to human health so it should be a very moderate portion of the diet.*
Does Meat Keep a Body Warm?
The most frequent reason given for why it is better for the body if meat is eaten in the cold rather than the heat is the claim that meat warms the body. For example, one author writes, “Meat builds heat, so if you are out in the cold a lot and need the extra heat for your body you can get it by eating meat.” Similarly, another author cites contemporary experts in claiming, “In summer or hot weather [meat] is ‘too heating.’”
While this explanation has its roots in a pre-modern understanding of the human body and was first employed long before any scientific reasoning was used to support it, there is a scientific basis for this assertion, which later authors (including contemporary ones) have used.
The scientific backing comes from the fact that consuming protein produces more heat than fats or carbohydrates because of the higher thermic effect of protein (also known as “diet-induced thermogenesis” or “specific dynamic action”). The “thermic effect of food” is the energy used by the body to process food and is one factor in maintaining the body’s temperature. Protein produces a thermic effect of 20–30%, meaning that 20–30% percent of a food’s protein calories are spent to metabolize the protein. The thermic effect of carbohydrates is 5-10%. The thermic effect of fat is a mere 0–3%. These facts suggest a theoretical possibility that higher protein consumption might help keep the body warm, and many Latter-day Saint writers have cited these facts to demonstrate the wisdom of D&C 89. But ultimately there is no evidence that increased protein or meat consumption results in a discernible difference in maintaining body temperature in comparison to other sources of calories.
In an exhaustive 350-page study commissioned by the U.S. military entitled Nutrition Needs in Cold and in High-Altitude Environments, no evidence was found that macronutrient needs change in cold weather; nor was any evidence found to support the idea of increasing meat consumption in winter or cold. In fact, because the energy allowance for military personnel is higher in the cold but the total amount of protein needed remains relatively constant, “the percentage of calories to be contributed by protein is significantly lower.” Long-term studies of human subjects specifically testing the potential of protein to increase thermoregulation concluded that carbohydrates helped humans maintain “a higher core temperature during cold exposure than did fat or protein.”
A second study commissioned by the U.S. military to investigate the nutritional needs of military personnel in hot environments produced over 550 pages of analysis, none of which recommend decreasing meat or protein consumption in warm weather. In fact, at one point it suggests a “slight increase in protein may be required for work in hot environments.” Humans eat food, not specific macronutrients, and studies show that “when people consume mixed meals, the relative SDE [specific dynamic effect] impact of protein, carbohydrate, or fat becomes indistinguishable.”
Meat is no better than other food sources for keeping the human body warm.
Do We Need More Calories from Meat in the Winter?
A second, far less common, rationale used to explain the wisdom of increasing meat consumption in the winter is that “meat has more calories than fruits and vegetables, which some individuals may need fewer of in summer than winter.” People do tend to consume more calories in the cold, and most studies suggest there is an increased energy need in cold weather. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that humans can obtain energy (calories) from any food source; there is nothing special about the calories from meat.
Caloric (energy) density depends on factors like the amount of water, fiber, and fats in food. Meat can be roughly three to ten times more calorically dense than vegetables or fruits, but only twice as dense as whole grains, and some plant foods (like nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and many plant-based processed foods) can be two to four times more calorically dense than meat. Regardless, an extra 300 calories of beef, chicken, or pork delivers no more calories to the body than an extra 300 calories of fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains.
There are more than enough calories in plant foods to supply all the caloric needs for humans, no matter what the season or how many calories are needed. But the truth is: most people in America do not need more calories, they need less!
Is Lower Meat Consumption Better for Our Health?
LDS authors who have addressed the question of meat consumption and human health have dwelt largely and often exclusively on the hazards of making meat more than a moderate portion of the diet, regardless of the season. Several have pointed out that at the time D&C 89 was revealed, Americans were known to consume a relatively large quantity of meat. Living in a land of rich abundance, Americans have almost always been able to consume a significantly higher quantity of meat as compared to other countries.
In the 2000s, meat consumption in the U.S. hit a record high. Consequently, one can readily find criticisms and cautions against heavy meat consumption throughout American history, up to the present day. Many LDS writers have relied on various critiques of meat consumption in their own explanations of why the Lord would caution us to consume meat “sparingly” and only in times of winter, cold, or famine.
The following are some of the reasons historically cited by Latter-day Saints as to why immoderate meat consumption can be detrimental to the human body. The popularity of some of these reasons has waxed and waned, but surprisingly none of them has gone totally out of favor, though not all are championed by current scientific research (e.g. the last three points on this list):
- High meat consumption is strongly associated with many chronic diseases.
- High meat consumption crowds out other healthy foods and their nutrients.
- Meat contains an unhealthy amount of saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Excess meat protein is hard on the liver and kidneys.
- High meat consumption has a negative effect on the acid–alkaline balance of body.
- Meat is high in uric acid (associated with gout and kidney stones).
- Meat is more subject to “putrefactive and other disturbances.”
- Meat is hard for humans to digest.
- Meat is overly “stimulating” to the human body.
The assertion that meat consumption is deleterious to health is an ancient concept, and it was preached by a few prominent people in Joseph Smith’s day. Today, very few mainstream nutritionists would argue for high meat consumption; current dietary advice counsels cutting back on meat. A number of experts assert that higher levels of meat consumption lead to obesity and a large variety of bodily ailments, particularly chronic illnesses such as heart disease, strokes, and cancer (among the top causes of death in America).
But what about these facts suggest that we should abstain from consuming meat particularly during times of winter or cold? Is there a rationale for this counsel on a health basis? On the one hand, there are experts who feel the evidence for limiting our consumption of meat beyond the standard of “sparingly” is very compelling. On the other hand, there doesn’t appear to be strong evidence that consuming meat in the winter or cold has health advantages over consuming it in the summer and heat (assuming both are done sparingly).
It is self-evident that abstaining from all meat consumption during certain parts of the year (spring, summer, and fall) and sparingly at other times (winter or cold) would lead to overall less meat consumption than consuming meat sparingly year round, and, according to some experts, this would be better for our health. However, we might legitimately ask, “Would the Lord provide an arbitrary distinction between the seasons simply in order to decrease the total amount of meat we consume?” If not, what logical rationale might there be for the obvious distinction made in verse 13?
I encourage readers to prayerfully study D&C 89:12–13. What does your reading suggest to you about why the Lord is pleased if we don’t use meat, except in times of winter, cold or famine?
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Another very popular explanation for why the Lord counseled the Saints in 1833 to not eat meat except in times of winter, cold or famine was because these Saints did not have refrigerators, and without refrigeration, meats were more likely to spoil in the heat than in the cold. Is there any validity to this interpretation? Next week I’ll address this question, along with one last common interpretation: Plant foods are not always as available in the winter or cold, so meat may be needed to supplement the diet.
Real Mormons • Real Stories
This section features Latter-day Saints who have adopted a Word of Wisdom diet. (If you have a story to share, please contact me.)
Terry Hermansen’s journey to eating a plant-based diet included many people and experiences: his mother, a woman on his mission, an assistant scoutmaster, and studying D&C 89. Noticing the health problems of so many Church members made him ask, “Are we living the Word of Wisdom if we can’t run and not be weary, walk and not faint? I knew that the Lord wouldn’t break His promises so I concluded that we, as Church members, weren’t fully keeping the Word of Wisdom as it was intended . . . I decided at that point to take the plunge and stop eating meat.” Each step of the way, Terry found increased health and greater joy. I love the way Terry is slowly tutored by the Lord, and that he allows the same privilege for all others! Read the full story here: “My overall sense of well-being has never been better!”
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.
* I explore this same subject in greater detail in A. Jane Birch, “Getting into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 1-36.
 E. C. Brand, The Word of Wisdom (San Francisco: n.p., 1865).
 Doris T. Charriere, Hidden Treasures of the Word of Wisdom (Salt Lake City: Hawkes, 1978), 51.
 Leah D. Widtsoe, How to Be Well (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing, 1943), 71.
 This article is a contemporary example of this interpretation: Ted E. Brewerton, “Science behind eating meat primarily in winter, cold.” Deseret News, July 11 2010.
 Klass R. Westerterp, “Diet Induced Thermogenesis,” Nutrition & Metabolism 1/5 (2004): 1–5.
 Committee on Military Nutrition Research, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, Nutritional Needs in Cold and High-Altitude Environments, ed. Bernadette M. Marriott and Sydney J. Carlson (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996), 24.
 Committee on Military Nutrition Research, Nutritional Needs in Cold, 285–86.
 Committee on Military Nutrition Research, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments, ed. Bernadette M. Marriott (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993), 45.
 Committee on Military Nutrition Research, Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments, 109.
 Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual Religion 324 and 325 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001), 210.
 See previously cited studies commissioned by the U.S. military.
 Gordon M. Wardlaw and Anne M. Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 6th ed. updated (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 38–40.
 See, for example, Lester E. Bush Jr., “The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective.” Dialogue 14/3 (Fall 1981): 47–65.
 Vaclav Smil, “Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences,” Population and Development Review 28/4 (2002): 599–639.
 United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Fact Book 2001–2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office Superintendent of Documents, 2003), 15.
 Bush, “Word of Wisdom,” 53–54.
 See, for example, Joan Sabate, “The Contribution of Vegetarian Diets to Health and Disease: A Paradigm Shift?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(suppl) (2003): 502S–07S.
 See, for example, Carrie R. Daniel, Amanda J. Cross, Corinna Koebnick, and Rashmi Sinha, “Trends in Meat Consumption in the USA,” Public Health Nutrition 14/4 (2010): 575–583.