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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.
Last week I concluded a ten-week series on the human microbiome with an article that describes why I feel this topic is critically important for addressing the perplexing health issues we face today. You’ll find links to the entire series in the last article, “Will the Destroying Angel Pass Us By?”
This recent series on the microbiome highlighted the critical role of fiber to our health. Low-carb experts believe we can get all the fiber we need from non-starch vegetables and non-sweet fruits without the use of grains and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). Of course, no one doubts the wisdom of a diet high in fruits and vegetables. What is in question is where we get the rest of our calories. In this week’s article, I invite readers to consider where the bulk of their calories are coming from.
As beneficial as fruits and vegetables are for supplying a rich variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, they are relatively poor at providing the one thing humans most need from food: calories. Since fruits and vegetables provide relatively few calories, we have to look elsewhere for a bulk source of energy. There are a few options.
Nuts and seeds are calorically dense, but they are resource-intensive to grow and prohibitively expensive for supplying more than a small fraction of the world’s calories. Vegetable oils are also calorically dense, but they are 100% fat with almost zero nutrients, and experts recommend they be used sparingly, if at all. The most significant source of plant calories are grains and legumes, which can both be classified under grains. Outside of the plant kingdom are all the animal foods: meat, dairy, and eggs—these share a similar nutritional profile and are all rich sources of calories.
Both grains and animal foods are more than adequate to supply all the energy needs of an adult body. So, in short, in our search for calories we basically have a choice between meat and wheat, where meat represents all the animal foods and wheat represents the grains and legumes.
Meat or Wheat?
Between meat and wheat, low-carb advocates choose meat. Here is the basic story they tell in their case against carbohydrates:
During 2.5 million years of human history (the Paleolithic period), we were hunter-gatherers, and our diet consisted of the foods we hunted (the animals) and the plant foods we gathered (nuts and berries). This low carbohydrate diet is optimal for our bodies, and on this diet we were lean, fit, and generally free of chronic disease. The Neolithic period, a mere 10,000 years ago, marked the beginning of agriculture and our use of grains. Being “new” foods, our bodies were not adapted to this amount of carbohydrates. Grains also exposed us to “novel proteins and anti-nutrients — such as gluten, phytic acid and lectins.” Consuming these new foods brought on the modern chronic and degenerative diseases that are still with us today. Recent manipulation of modern grains has only compounded the problems. If we would return to the simpler low-carbohydrate diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, we’d experience tremendous health gains. Modern people who switch to a low-carb diet lose weight and feel much better. We are just not designed to eat so many carbohydrates.
What is wrong with this picture? First, many researchers who specialize in the Paleolithic period report that the scientific data suggests that the diet of Paleolithic peoples was actually very high in carbohydrates, in fact higher than the modern diet. Second, whole food, plant-based experts point out that modern chronic disease has only exploded worldwide with the introduction of the modern Western diet, which is high in animal foods and low in carbohydrates. Before this, most humans consumed a diet that was primarily composed of whole plant foods, which are very high in carbohydrates. On this diet, they were lean and relatively free of chronic disease, although they had plenty of other health challenges: infectious disease, hunger, childbirth, war, and accidents.
It’s difficult to know what to think when there are experts on both sides saying completely opposite things. We can always do our own research to decide what to believe. But frankly we have a much stronger reason for doubting the low-carb dietary history: it contradicts the word of the Lord in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom.
The God of this universe made us, His children, in His express image. He surely knows what our bodies need for optimal health. If there is anyone we can trust on diet and nutrition, it is our Heavenly Father. He has given us three dietary principles in D&C 89:
- Wholesome plants (which are primarily composed of fibrous complex carbohydrates) are ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10–11).
- The flesh of animals is to be used sparingly and preferably only in times of need (D&C 89:12–13, 15).
- All grain is “good” and is ordained to be “the staff of life,” the foundation of our diet (D&C 89:14–17).
These are the dietary principles God designed for His children. The Word of Wisdom doesn’t just encourage a lot of fruits and vegetables; in modern lingo, it is “high-carb (plant foods), low protein (animal foods),” and it gives a central role to grains (the very foods low-carb experts believe are most harmful to our bodies). The Lord goes even further to specifically declare, “wheat for man” (D&C 89:17).
Between meat and wheat, the Lord’s choice is obvious. He suggests we choose plants over animals whenever we have a choice.
A Better Account of Our Dietary History
Understanding the Lord’s perspective helps us better understand and appreciate a radically different explanation of our dietary history:
Sophisticated tools have allowed scientists to analyze the food consumption of ancient hunter-gatherers and reveal that we’ve greatly exaggerated the role animal foods played in their diets. The bulk of the human diet has almost always come primarily from fibrous plant foods. Analysis of contemporary hunter-gatherers suggests that our distant ancestors likely consumed some 100-200 grams of fiber a day, which signifies a diet extremely high in complex high-fiber carbohydrates. The agricultural revolution enabled humans to obtain a steadier, more reliable source of carbohydrates and is the foundation of civilization. Animal foods remained a minor part of the human diet out of economic necessity, as only the wealthy could afford diets high in these foods. The most dramatic change to the human diet occurred only recently, during the last 100–200 years, as our economic circumstances have dramatically increased our choice in food consumption. When poverty is not a barrier, humans are motivated largely by taste and convenience. As we’ve steadily added more low-fiber processed foods and more no-fiber animal foods to our diet, we’ve eliminated much of the fibrous complex carbohydrates that made up the bulk of our ancestor’s diet. We’ve gotten to a point where the average Western diet contains a paltry 16 grams of fiber a day, only a tenth of what our ancestors are likely to have consumed! Worldwide, chronic disease is consistently associated with the consumption of a modern low-fiber, animal food based diet.
Note that in this version of history, the dramatic turning point in the human diet happened within the last 200 years. Interestingly, this is just the period of time when the Lord gave His children the dietary counsel we find in D&C 89. Our more distant ancestors ate a diet of necessity, so the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom would have been useless to them. We eat a diet of choice, so this is the very day when this counsel is desperately needed.
Reasons to Choose Wheat Over Meat
Below I’ll summarize a few of the reasons I believe we’d be wise to choose wheat over meat.
The original diet the Lord gave Adam and Eve was entirely plant-based (Genesis 1:29). When He sent them out of the Garden, it was to “till the ground” (Genesis 3:23). So rather than being a relatively “new” invention, agriculture is described in the Bible as the earliest human industry. As far back as our understanding of the human race is concerned, we’ve always been primarily plant eaters. As Dr. John McDougall, points out:
All large populations of trim, healthy people, throughout verifiable human history, have obtained the bulk of their calories from starch. Examples of once thriving people include Japanese, Chinese, and other Asians eating sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and/or rice; Incas in South America eating potatoes; Mayans and Aztecs in Central America eating corn; and Egyptians in the Middle East eating wheat.
In the past, only the wealthy could afford a diet high in animal foods, so only the wealthy got the associated chronic diseases. Now, everyone can afford plenty of animal protein and processed foods, and now everyone gets the chronic diseases.
When animal foods and highly processed plant foods are compared with unprocessed plant foods, there really is no debate about where the nutrients we need come from. After all, it is impossible for animals to create any of the nutrients we need. All the nutrients in animal foods come from the plant foods animals eat. Human health does not require the consumption of animal foods, though they definitely can be a life saver in the absence of plant foods.
Michael Greger has done an excellent job of presenting the scientific data on diet and disease in his new book, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease. In this book, Dr. Greger examines the scientific evidence that shows we can largely prevent the 15 leading causes of death by choosing a whole food, plant-based diet: heart disease, lung disease, brain disease, digestive cancers, infection, diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, blood cancer, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and iatrogenic (caused by medical care) causes.
As wealthy as we’ve become, the world’s population cannot be supported on the animal food diet the Western world has adopted. In weighing “meat vs. wheat,” we have to consider that it is not possible to produce enough animal foods to feed the world’s ever-growing population. Animal agriculture requires many more times (as much as several hundred more times) as much land, water, and other natural resources as does plant agriculture. We would need several planets the size of this earth to feed the entire world what the average American consumes.
Low-carb experts readily admit that we cannot feed the world on a low-carb diet. To them, this is a sad result of the agricultural revolution, which they consider an unfortunate, tragic event in our history. So, their low-carb recommendations are targeted to the people who read their books and can afford the expensive diets they advocate. In contrast, our Heavenly Father’s focus is on all His children, and His ideal diet is not designed for the relatively few who can afford it. God’s diet, as declared in the Word of Wisdom, provides more than enough calories for everyone by making grains, including wheat, the “staff of life.” Grains and other starchy foods (like potatoes) are the sources of inexpensive, wholesome calories the Lord designed as the foundation of our diet.
Wise Stewardship Over the Earth
Heavenly Father provided a beautiful world full of abundant resources for our benefit. He has also asked us to be wise stewards of all we are given (see this beautiful statement put out by the LDS Church, “Environmental Stewardship and Conservation”). In light of our stewardship, consider some of the problems associated with the worldwide adoption of the Western diet:
- Animals raised in factory farms have no ability to fulfill the measure of their creation, living short lives in cramped conditions, never going outside or having natural interactions with each other.
- Drought conditions expand as more water is used to produce livestock and the grain to feed those animals. It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.
- Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.
- We grow enough food on the planet to feed 10 billion people, but 50% of all grain grown is fed to livestock.
- Animal waste at large factory farms overwhelms the land, so much of it ends up as pollution in our air and water.
By choosing wheat over meat, we can do our part to protect the earth, not to mention the animals! How wonderful that we can demonstrate wise stewardship through choosing a diet that is also healthier for our bodies.
It is Pleasing to the Lord
Whether we look at history, health, economics, or our stewardship over the earth, it makes sense to get the bulk of our calories from grains rather than animal foods. Of course, as with any profound truth, there are always plenty of contradictory voices. No matter how good the evidence is, “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). The Internet is full of opposing voices regarding diet and nutrition. That is why we are blessed to have this dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom:
- “It is pleasing unto me that they [animals] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” or “excess of hunger” (D&C 89:13, 15)
- “All grain is ordained for the use of man . . . to be the staff of life” (D&C 89:14)
Again, between meat and wheat, the Lord’s choice is obvious. He suggests we choose plants over animals whenever we have a choice. We can’t be sure which of the many reasons most pleases the Lord when we choose wheat over meat, we just know that doing this apparently makes Him happy. Isn’t it great that we can do something we know will please Him?
With so many nutrition voices competing for our time and attention, we are fortunate that we can judge them on more than how reasonable they sound and how tasty their recipes are. We have a powerful advantage over the rest of the world trying to resolve these complex, critical questions: we have the word of the Lord as declared in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom.
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.”
 Todd Becker, “What Causes Allergies and Autoimmune Disease?” GettingStronger.org (March 26, 2013).
 You can find this basic history in nearly all sources that advocate for a low-carb diet. Here is one authoritative source: Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, Revised Edition (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
 Karen Hardy, et al., “The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 90(3):251-268 (August 2015).
 T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health (Dallas: Benbella, 2006).
 Nathaniel Dominy, “Nathaniel Dominy PhD. and the True Human Diet,” YouTube.com (September 11, 2011).
 Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health (New York: Penguin, 2015).
 M. Katherine Hoy and Joseph D. Goldman, “Fiber Intake of the U.S. Population: What We Eat in America,” NHANES 2009-2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture (September 2014).
 Campbell and Campbell, The China Study.
 John A. McDougall, “Introduction to New McDougall Book The Starch Solution,” DrMcDougall.com (February 2009).
 The two exceptions are Vitamin B12 (made by neither plants nor animals—it is created by bacteria in the soil and the guts of animals) and Vitamin D (from exposure to sunlight).
 Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015).
 “Is Meat Sustainable?” World Watch Magazine, 17:4 (July/August 2004).
 Cordain, The Paleo Diet.
 See, for example: “The Facts” on Cowspiracy.com; “What’s Wrong With Factory Farms?” on FactoryFarmMap.org; and “10 Reasons to Consider a Plant-Based Diet — For Yourself and the Planet,” on RichRoll.com.