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.
Last week in “The Problem with Paleo,” I contrasted the currently popular Paleo diet with the relatively unknown Word of Wisdom diet. One is found in best-selling books, the other in our scriptures. The best sellers are written by intelligent people, but the Word of Wisdom is written by God. For Latter-day Saints, we should care about how our dietary choices compare with the Lord’s counsel. In this case, my conclusion was that the Paleo diet does an awesome job with exactly one of the three principles of the Word of Wisdom: consuming wholesome plant foods. On the other hand, the Paleo diet contradicts the other two Word of Wisdom principles: meat sparingly in times of need and making grain the staff of life.
In today’s article, I go a little more in depth into the principle of making grain the staff of life and explain why this dietary principle plays a key role in the Plan of Salvation.
Paleo Experts on Grain
Among the various food types Paleo experts condemn, they express particular contempt for grains, which they believe should ideally be no part of the human diet. Mark Sisson, one of the leading Paleo experts, summarizes the Paleo perspective on grains by stating:
Perhaps the most harmful element of dietary Conventional Wisdom is that grains are healthy—the “staff of life”—as we’ve been led to believe our entire lives. While grains enjoy massive global popularity today, they are simply not very healthy.
Paleo experts approvingly quote UCLA evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond who categorically declared grains the “worse mistake in the history of the human race.”
Of all the grains, Paleo experts contend that wheat is the most harmful to the human body. Paleo experts Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet tell us that wheat is “the most dangerous of the grains.” Robb Wolf, a prominent Paleo advocate, warns:
Gluten [the main protein in wheat] consumption is on par with a pack-a-day smoking habit. And, it’s addictive. . . . Grains are NOT healthy! Be they whole or half a grain.
In contrast, the Lord declares in D&C 89:
“All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life. . . . All grain is good for the food of man. . . . wheat for man” (D&C 89:14, 16, 17 emphasis added)
While stating all grain is good, the Lord gives special praise to wheat, the very grain Paleo experts vilify with the most intensity. In fact, wheat and barley (another grain condemned by Paleo experts) are the only foods God mentions by name in the context of what is good for human use. Is the fact that the foods praised by God are the very foods most widely condemned by Paleo (and other low-carb) diet experts really sheer coincidence?
Some Latter-day Saints dismiss the counsel in the Word of Wisdom on grain by reminding us that the “grains have changed.” It is true that grains have changed over the centuries and even during the last few decades. What we also need to remember is that so have the fruits, the vegetables, and the legumes. They’ve all changed . . . significantly! For that matter, so has the meat, dairy, and eggs! People have been tinkering with their food for thousands of years. Whether all of these changes are for the worse or some are for the better, most of us do not have the choice of eating “unchanged” foods. You can try finding some relatively undomesticated foods in the wild, but they are hard to find, bitter, and provide few calories. You will not have much success keeping yourself, much less your family, alive on them.
Consider this: what has changed MUCH more than the natural foods we grow are the concocted foods we eat AND our bodies in response to these foods . . . and yet everyone blames the grains.
I have no doubt that some people currently do not do well on certain grains, and I certainly think it is prudent to abstain from particular grains if they don’t agree with you. However, I wonder if we should be more careful about whole-heartedly endorsing a diet that declares that grain is bad and should ideally be eliminated from the human diet when the Lord has specifically told us that “all grain is good” and is ordained to be the “staff of life.”
What is a “Staff of Life”?
What did the Lord mean when He said that He ordained grain to be the “staff of life”? The “staff of life” means a “staple food.” What is a staple? According to Merriam-Webster, the word staple used as a noun means “the sustaining or principal element.” When used as an adjective, it means “principal, chief ” and “used, needed, or enjoyed constantly usually by many individuals.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, staple means “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption.”
According to the Word of Wisdom, the principal or chief element of our diet should be grain. Grains include grasses like wheat and rice, but corn and legumes (like beans, lentils, peas, and other pulses) can be classified as grains. Other high-starch foods like roots/tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams and taro) are also staple foods in various parts of the world.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of a grain-based diet is not new with the Word of Wisdom. Dr. John McDougall notes that, “Throughout civilization and around the world, six foods have provided our primary fuel: barley, maize (corn), millet, potatoes, rice, and wheat.” Dr. McDougall explains:
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.
Isn’t a Staff a Crutch?
The phrase “staff of life” is an English idiom. Some well-meaning Latter-day Saints have attempted to use one of the words in this idiom (“staff”) to interpret the idiom as a whole They point out that a staff is a support, a type of crutch, something used only in time of weakness and necessity, and they conclude that grain as the “staff of life” is to be used only as a support, in times of need, and not as a staple food. But I believe this is a misunderstanding of how an idiom functions in the English language.
An idiom is “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.” By definition, you can’t understand the meaning of an idiom by focusing on the separate words in the idiom, because the idiom as a whole has its own meaning, apart from the separate words. Think of some other idioms in our language:
can of worms
kick the bucket
had a cow
penny for your thoughts
heard it on the grapevine
miss the boat
on the ball
straight from the horse’s mouth
costs an arm and a leg
the last straw
sit on the fence
Note that in each case, “the meaning of the idiomatic expression cannot be deduced by looking at the meaning of the individual words that it is made up of.”
The idiom “staff of life” cannot be understood by simply defining what the word “staff” means and then hypothesizing the meaning of the idiom. We can only understand this idiom by seeing how it has been used. Fortunately, it has had a well-defined, consistent meaning throughout the long history of the English language, where it clearly refers to a “staple food.” The Oxford English Dictionary illustrates this with examples beginning in 1638, but you can search the phrase “staff of life” on-line and find the same results (be sure to place quote marks around the phrase when you search for it).
The Paleo Diet Reflects a Paleo Worldview
Obviously, Paleo experts do not believe grain is good or should be the staff of life. In fact, they dismiss this idea. Mark Sisson gave this response to a comment about grains being the “staff of life”:
[Comment] “I could never give up bread. And aren’t grains the staff of life?”
[Response from Mark Sisson] For the past several thousand years of human history, bread has been a staple food. The ancient Egyptians baked it. The Greeks and Romans made it. You probably grew up with it. It was – and is – cheap and filling. Today, because billions simply need calories from wherever they can get them, grains are the ticket, the “staff of life.” But it’s not like we’ll wither away into nothingness, all because we failed to heed the biological dietary necessity to eat grains ordained by some higher power. Grains aren’t the staff of life in an inherent sense, but rather because they’re cheap, reliable, and easy to work with.
Like other Paleo experts, Mark Sisson does not believe grains are “ordained by some higher power.” He probably does not know there is a God who created us and has given us dietary counsel for our day. He doesn’t realize the Savior of this world not only “ordained” grain for our use, but ordained it to be the staff of life.
The Word of Wisdom comes from a Gospel perspective, which makes no sense from a Paleo diet perspective. From the Paleo perspective, humans are the product of the blind forces of evolution, and people in the 21st century should be eating the foods they believe our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic period because they believe our bodies just happened to have evolved to be adapted to these foods. According to Paleo experts, “evolution via natural selection [is] the answer to modern health questions.”
The Word of Wisdom perspective does not conflict with the idea that our bodies have evolved over time, but it does conflict with a worldview that presupposes our bodies are the result of blind forces that have randomly determined what is ideal for our bodies.
From the perspective of the Word of Wisdom, our bodies are created by a loving Father in His image as sacred temples of His Holy Spirit, and He has specifically set apart (“ordained”) certain foods for our “constitution, nature, and use.” In 1833, God declared what those foods are:
- All wholesome herbs (plants) in the season thereof. (D&C 89:10–11)
- The flesh of animals used sparingly and preferably only in times of need. (D&C 89:12–13, 15)
- Grain, which is the staff of life. (D&C 89:14, 16)
God declared this counsel to be the “order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2). Whether or not this was the order and will of God for Paleolithic peoples, I don’t know, but God tells us it is His will for us in our day.
The Role of Grain in the Plan of Salvation
No matter what the role of evolution in the design of our bodies, we know that God was intimately involved in this process, and that He created our bodies with a divine purpose for an eternal end. Our bodies are so sacred they are a primary reason we have come to this earth. In fact, to fulfill the Plan of Salvation, billions of our Father’s children need to come to this earth to receive a mortal body.
If God needs to provide a home for billions of His Spirit children, it is clear that He needs to provide an earth that can feed these billions of people. As even the Paleo experts agree, the only way to supply an adequate source of calories for billions of people is to use, you guessed it, grains. Is it any wonder that God ordained, or set apart, grain to fill a special role? It is clear, grains have an essential function to play in the Plan of Salvation.
Compare God’s plan with the Paleo perspective. Here is what Loren Cordain, one of the leading Paleo experts, says about the role of grains:
The starchy foods of the Agricultural Revolution are the world’s cheap foods. Grains, legumes, and tubers are the starchy foods that have let our planet’s population balloon to more than 6 billion. . . . Without them, the world could probably support one-tenth or less of our present population; without agriculture’s cheap starchy staples, it is no exaggeration to say that billions of people worldwide would starve.
In other words, if the entire world switched to a Paleo diet, “billons of people worldwide would starve.” No wonder God did not feature the Paleo diet in the Word of Wisdom!
For Cordain and other Paleo experts, the Agricultural Revolution was a tragic mistake. Note that the Agricultural Revolution brought humans more than an abundance of grains and other domestic crops, it also brought civilization as we know it: arts, science, humanities, advanced technology, etc. Was all this also a colossal “mistake”? Or is it possible that God inspired the Agricultural Revolution that brought us a greater abundance of grain and paved the way for billions of His children to have their turn on earth?
Billions more spirits have come to this earth in the last 100 years, dramatically increasing the size of the world’s population and necessitating that we must have a way to feed all these people. The estimate is that we’ll have to increase food production by an additional 66% to meet the demand by 2040. Grains are the way God has ordained for His children to get the bulk of their calories. Increasing the productivity of wheat and other staple grains is key to feeding God’s children and allowing them the opportunity to experience earth life.
We complain that the “grains have changed,” forgetting that they have changed in ways that allow many more of God’s children to be fed. Is it not possible that at least some of the changes to grains came by inspiration from God as a way to feed more of His children who are waiting to experience their turn on earth?
Who Should We Believe?
Paleo experts are decidedly unimpressed with the nutritional quality of grains, but they are far outnumbered by expert nutritionists who report that the scientific evidence overwhelming tells us that whole grains are indeed “good,” just as the Lord declared. We can compare the evidence from the relatively small number of low-carb experts that grains (especially wheat) are bad with the evidence from the vast majority of expert nutritionists who tell us that whole grains (including wheat) are healthy.
Of course, sometimes the minority is right, so as the non-experts who are we to believe? I think the Lord wants us to do what we can to sort through the evidence. There is plenty of it, on all sides. We could spend all of our lives researching, studying, and evaluating the evidence, but what standard are we going to evaluate it against? May I recommend the standard the Lord gave us? It is found in D&C 89. This is the counsel He specifically gave to “all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2).
Yes, the evidence can appear contradictory. There is so much we don’t know (scientists have not even discovered all of the nutrients in grains, much less fully understood them!). Given so much we don’t know, if we were to give one side of an argument the benefit of the doubt, should that not go to those who support the word of God?
We Latter-day Saints need to understand that the attack against “carbs” in our society is specifically an attack against grains, the very food God has ordained to be the “staff of life.”
What if I Can’t Eat Grains?
Many people are afraid of grains and other starch foods. Some of this is due to the powerful anti-carb messages we hear constantly in the media, but part of it is real. I believe most of it is due to the impact of the Standard American Diet on our bodies. By switching to a whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet, you can restore your good health and ability to enjoy the wholesome foods God created, including grain. Start with any of the grains or other starchy plant foods that you can already tolerate. You only need to have one staple starch food in your diet, though of course more is nice for variety. Brown rice and sweet potatoes, for example, work well for most people.
I’ve written extensively on the topic of grains and also cited many useful resources in several articles and a long companion website. See “Gluten, Wheat, Grain (and other food sensitivities).”
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet”
Coming Soon: “Discovering the Word of Wisdom” Short Film
We are making progress on a short film I’m producing about the Word of Wisdom! The purpose of the film is to encourage more Mormons to get excited about the wonderful counsel we have from the Lord and the amazing blessings He has promised us. It will be free and on YouTube. If you’d like to be notified when the film is completed, go to Discovering the Word of Wisdom Short Film.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Next time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom I plan to take a closer look at the Paleo perspective on meat and share my view about why this contrasts with the counsel we are given in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom.
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.
 Mark Sisson, The Primal Blueprint (Malibu, California: Primal Nutrition, 2009), 150.
 Mark Sisson, The Primal Blueprint, 2.
 Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching Jaminet, Perfect Health Diet: Regain Healthy and Lose Weight by Eating the Way You Were Meant to Eat (New York: Scribner, 2012), 197.
 Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet (Las Vegas: Victory Belt, 2010), 85, 87.
 “staff, n.1” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).
 “staple” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2013).
 “staple, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.
 John A. McDougall, “Excerpt from The Starch Solution,” February 2012.
 John A. McDougall, “Introduction to New McDougall Book—The Starch Solution,” February 2009.
 “idiom” Merriam-Webster.
 David Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language.
 Mark Sisson “Is Going Grain Free Healthy?” Mark’s Daily Apple blog (May 22, 2012).
 Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution, 20.
 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), 215.
 See evidence cited in Jane Birch, “Gluten, Wheat, Grain (and other food sensitivities).”