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

One of the main criticisms made of a whole food, plant-based approach to the Word of Wisdom is that it is “extreme.” For most people, giving up processed foods and animal foods and eating only wholesome plant foods is such a major change that they can’t imagine doing it; it just seems way too radical.

What is “extreme” is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Whole food, plant-based expert Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn puts it this way:

Some people think the plant-based, whole foods diet is extreme. Half a million people a year will have their chests opened up and a vein taken from their leg and sewn onto their coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme.

This observation is even more to the point when we learn that Dr. Esselstyn has demonstrated that most heart disease is completely preventable by eating a whole food, plant-based diet.[1] He calls this #1 killer a “toothless paper tiger” because it is essentially a food-borne illness, just as most lung cancer is a tobacco-borne disease. When smoking was popular, even among doctors, people thought giving up cigarettes entirely was also “extreme.” But why smoke even sparingly when it is doing damage to our precious lungs? Likewise, why eat unhealthy foods when they are actively harming our body temples?

Dr. John McDougall observes, “Open-heart surgery is radical. Eating oatmeal and potatoes is not radical.” Is eating oatmeal and potatoes radical? What about rice and beans? How about apples, pears, carrots, or squash? How is a wholesome diet of just healthy foods a radical diet? Do we really believe it is extreme to live without junk food and other foods that harm our body temples? If it we do, perhaps this helps explain the growing problem of obesity.

“Fun” For You Foods?

In an effort to excuse the inherently harmful nature of the products they sell, the food industry likes to make the distinction between “good for you” foods and “fun for you” foods. The idea is that as long as we are eating plenty of “good for you” foods that some “fun for you” food is just another way to make life enjoyable. What is the harm in that? Well, anyone who wants to research the relevant literature will discover that these same “fun for you” foods can lead to lots of things that don’t sound very fun:

  • food addiction
  • weight gain
  • chronic illness
  • autoimmune disease
  • chemotherapy and radiation
  • the loss of limbs and eyesight
  • early death

One purpose of the gospel seems to be to help us become the kind of people who genuinely love and enjoy what is also good for us. Happy are we if what we love to watch and eat also nourishes our body and soul!

What About Moderation?

It is interesting how many people believe the Word of Wisdom teaches “moderation,” when neither the word nor the concept appears anywhere in D&C 89. We don’t drink a moderate amount of alcohol or smoke a moderate amount of cigarettes. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn likes to point out, “Moderation kills.” Moderation can definitely contribute to death and disease. Consuming even a moderate amount of poison can be deadly, a moderate amount of pornography is still damaging, and even a moderate amount of unhealthy foods is still harmful to our bodies and leads to weight gain, loss of vitality, and chronic illness.

Imagine what the Church would be like today if the Word of Wisdom had admonished the Saints to use alcohol and tobacco “sparingly” and allowed the occasional cup of coffee and tea. My guess is that we’d still have widespread abuse of these substances among members today. We humans are not good at doing things “moderately” when it involves consuming things we grow to crave.

Is a whole food, plant-based interpretation of the Word of Wisdom radical? Consider the remarkable results of such a diet and whether the Lord would not want these amazing blessings for His children. Adhering to this diet can eliminate at least 80% of the chronic illnesses in our society: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and much more.[2] No other approach to the Word of Wisdom has demonstrated this potential. Think about the savings in not only human lives, but quality of lives, not to mention the terrible financial costs of these diseases and the heavy burden on workplaces and families. Most of the diseases we see around us are “food-borne” diseases that need not exist and that can be reversed if we are willing to adopt this “extreme” diet.

To me, the criticism that this diet is extreme is a sign that this approach to the principles in D&C 89 is in keeping with other gospel principles we cherish. After all, most of the things we Latter-day Saints do appear to be way too extreme to the non-believer:

  • Fully keeping the law of chastity
  • Avoiding all pornography
  • Offering a full 10% of income to the Lord
  • Keeping the entire Sabbath Day holy
  • Abstaining from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea
  • Treating every person with kindness and love

Let’s face it: our religion is not a religion of moderation! The Lord is not OK with small indiscretions regarding chastity. Paying 8% of our income is not a full tithe. It is probably a safe assumption that following the bare minimum of the dietary counsel in D&C 89 is also not ideal. A whole food, plant-based approach helps us elevate our thinking about the wisdom in D&C 89 and our hope that we can receive all the promised blessings:

And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;

And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen. (verses 18–21)

If we don’t feel we are receiving all the blessings promised in D&C 89, perhaps we could consider whether the knowledge and expertise found in whole food, plant-based nutrition can help us discover additional insights into understanding and applying this wisdom.[3] I agree that at first this diet does seem extreme, but then the blessings that result from doing it are also extreme!

Ways to Avoid Being Extreme

Although I do not believe that eating the foods that best protect our body temple is in any way extreme, I do believe there are ways we can be extreme and that these should be avoided. For example, all of the Lord’s counsel is important, and if we focus on a few of the things He asks us to do to the exclusion of other things, we may be taking an extreme path. We may also be on an extreme path when we insist that others must agree with our interpretation of His counsel.

Certainly there are instances of extreme attitudes and behaviors when it comes to the Word of Wisdom. The Lord gave us principles in D&C 89, and we need to each decide, prayerfully and thoughtfully, how those principles apply in our individual lives. We should respect others who make different decisions than we do.

If we have made our decisions through thoughtful prayer, we do not need to be troubled by others who accuse us of being extreme. Many people think we Mormons are extreme in many of the things we do, so using the world’s measuring rod is obviously not helpful. We are not answerable to the world. We are answerable to God.

President Thomas S. Monson’s counsel in the October 2011 General Conference address “Dare to Stand Alone” applies here:

Do we have the moral courage to stand firm for our beliefs, even if by so doing we must stand alone?… May we ever be courageous and prepared to stand for what we believe, and if we must stand alone in the process, may we do so courageously, strengthened by the knowledge that in reality we are never alone when we stand with our Father in Heaven.[4]

Getting Started

For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started.”

Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”


[1] The single best resource for understanding the causes of heart disease and how to prevent it is Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure (New York: Avery, 2007). See also Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s free articles and videos and watch his 15-minute TED Talk. For details on Esselstyn’s most recent study proving the effectiveness of a WFPB to prevent and reverse heart disease, see Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., et al., “A Way to Reverse CAD?” The Journal of Family Practice 63, no. 7 (July 2014): 356–364.

[2] 80% may be a conservative estimate. In the “Healthy Living” article below, participants in a 23,153 person study who adhered to four healthy practices (never smoking, low BMI, regular physical activity, and a healthy diet) had a 78% lower risk of chronic disease than participants who adhered to none of these healthy practices. This was true even though the “healthy diet” they consumed was not as healthy as a Word of Wisdom diet based solely on whole plant foods.

Earl S. Ford, Manuela M Bergmann, Janine Kröger, Anja Schienkiewitz, Cornelia Weikert, and Heiner Boeing, “Healthy Living is the Best Revenge: Findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam Study,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 15 (2009): 1355-62.

According to the American Heart Association, “80 percent of heart disease and stroke can be prevented,” see: “Make the Effort to Prevent Heart Disease with Life’s Simple 7” (November 6, 2015). Again, this is using a diet that is less powerful and wholesome than a whole food, plant-based diet.

For the scientific literature on the power of a whole food, plant-based diet in preventing and reversing disease, see Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015).

[3] Here are some resources for exploring the power of whole food, plant-based nutrition: WFPB Resources.

[4] Thomas S. Monson, “Dare to Stand Alone,” LDS General Conference (October 2011).