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 I featured the first book to take a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) approach to the Word of Wisdom. Earl F. Updike’s The Mormon Diet: 14 Days to New Vigor and Health was the first of its kind, but it was also a natural progression in our understanding of the Word of Wisdom.

There has always been a dialectical relationship between science and the Word of Wisdom. Until science revealed them, we Latter-day Saints have often not recognized or understood many of the “hidden treasures” in the Word of Wisdom. As science has increasingly confirmed the wisdom of a plant-based and whole food approach to diet, and experts have made public their success in treating patients with a WFPB diet, it was only inevitable that Latter-day Saints would eventually make the connection between this science and the Word of Wisdom. Earl Updike was the first Latter-day Saint to publish a book on the topic.

The second LDS book connecting a WFPB diet with the Word of Wisdom was not far behind the first. In fact, the author of this second book was a close personal friend of Earl Updike and was one of Earl’s own converts to plant-based eating. Today I feature Earl Updike’s friend and Word of Wisdom pioneer Kenneth E. Johnson, M.D.

Word of Wisdom Pioneer: Kenneth E. Johnson, M.D. (1922–2005)

Kenneth Johnson

Kenneth E. Johnson graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and was certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. After serving as an Army medical officer during the Korean War, he spent the bulk of his career practicing medicine in Phoenix, Arizona where he was a pioneer in nephrology (kidney function, disease, and treatment). In 1961, he organized and led the Arizona Kidney Foundation and also headed the first chronic dialysis program. He received the prestigious Gold Headed Cane Award twice during his life. Born and raised in the Mormon faith, Dr. Johnson served in many Church positions, including bishop and stake high councilor.

Living just a few blocks from Dr. Johnson’s home was Earl Updike, the Word of Wisdom pioneer I featured last week. Earl and Ken became close lifelong friends and this friendship extended to all the members of both families. The two families got together regularly and grew to know each other very well over the years.

Ironically, while Dr. Johnson had the type of career Earl had hoped to have, it was Earl who was most passionate about good nutrition and diet for disease prevention. Earl would speak enthusiastically about his passion to anyone who would listen, so naturally Dr. Johnson heard a lot about it over the years. Unfortunately, this fine LDS doctor pooh-poohed his friend’s diet. He continued to eat the typical American foods and felt protected because he “kept the Word of Wisdom” and was a “faithful exerciser.” He gave his cardiovascular system a workout at least four times a week, bringing his heart rate to 80 percent of it maximum capacity, just as the experts recommended.

Then when Dr. Johnson was just 59 years old, he learned that all the good exercise in the world can’t undo the damage of a poor diet. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery due to “severe coronary artery disease.” This experience woke Dr. Johnson up to the need to pay a lot more attention to what his friend Earl had been telling him. After the surgery, he tried his friend’s vegetarian diet . . . twice. But lacking the knowledge and motivation his friend had, Dr. Johnson neither adopted the healthiest plant-based diet, nor did he stick to it. The result? Seven years after open heart surgery he suddenly felt the crushing chest pain he well knew as a medical doctor meant he was having a heart attack.

“I had seen its effects on hundreds of my patients, but this time it was happening to me,” Dr. Johnson recalled. His son sped him to the hospital where they discovered his left coronary artery was 90 percent blocked. He had a second open heart surgery with two more bypasses, using “the last available vein” in his leg and an artery from his chest wall.

What had gone wrong? He later reflected:

I didn’t know it then, but now I know what went wrong. I ate the wrong foods. It takes more than regular exercise to maintain a healthy heart. It also requires a plant-centered diet, a food plan like the one proclaimed . . . in the Word of Wisdom. [Johnson, p. 113]

How many chances does God give us to get it right? Given a second chance, Dr. Johnson finally joined his friend Earl in eating the Word of Wisdom way. He didn’t call it a “vegetarian” diet, as he explained:

. . . a diet based solely on vegetables is not really a proper diet. D&C 89:14 makes that clear when it states that “grain is the staff of life for man.” We need a grain-centered diet based on cooked cereals, rice, pastas, potatoes, and bread, supplemented by cooked and raw fruits and vegetables. This diet is the Word of Wisdom food plan. (p. 35)

When Earl Updike published his book in 1991, he noted that his friend Ken Johnson, “guided me all the way.” Dr. Johnson also wrote the foreword to Earl’s book. Then just two years later, in 1993, Dr. Johnson published his own book, The Word of Wisdom Food Plan: A Medical Review of the Mormon Doctrine, the second LDS book to connect a WFPB diet with the Word of Wisdom.

The Word of Wisdom Food Plan: A Medical Review of the Mormon Doctrine (1993)

Johnson_WoW Food Plan

The way I discovered Dr. Johnson’s book is interesting. My good friend, Abbie Kim, was working as an RN in a rehabilitation unit where she met Heidi Rock. Heidi was the trim and healthy wife of one of Abbie’s patients. She ate whole food, plant-based, but her family did not. She was discouraged by her husband’s diet and eager to help him improve it and survive his illness. One of the books she had was Dr. Johnson’s The Word of Wisdom Food Plan. When she learned that Abbie Kim is a native of South Korea, she excitedly shared with Abbie something she had found in Dr. Johnson’s book about the Korean War. A few months later, when I first learned about a WFPB diet, Abbie remembered this incident and shared the xeroxed copy she got from Heidi with me.

The section of Dr. Johnson’s book Abbie gave me turned out to be the Improvement Era article written by Dr. Ray Cowley, which I featured in an earlier article, “A Heart Attack Proof Diet.” Dr. Johnson included this amazing article by Dr. Cowley, in its entirety, in an appendix to his book. He may have been particularly impressed with it because it relates to his experience while stationed in Korea. Dr. Johnson writes:

In 1952 the U.S. Army sent me to Korea at a time of heavy fighting. There I learned a valuable Word of Wisdom lesson.

As a team of doctors using a primitive artificial kidney machine, we were able to save about half the American and Korean soldiers who developed acute kidney failure as a consequence of severe battle wounds. In autopsies of the soldiers who died, the difference between the American and Korean soldiers was very apparent.

Autopsy studies on Korean soldiers showed no evidence of early atherosclerosis, the beginning of heart disease. They were protected from the ravages of atherosclerosis by their plant-centered diet, low in fat and cholesterol. But even the young American soldiers showed early evidence of the disease; in fact, the disease was far advanced in some of them. (p. 29)

Unfortunately, this fine LDS doctor did not consume the same “plant-centered diet” that protected the arteries of the Korean soldiers. He had two open heart multiple bypass surgeries before finally discovering a “new” diet that would arrest his disease. Even Dr. Johnson found it ironic that this “new” diet was actually at least as old as 1833, when God revealed it to the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Like Earl Updike’s book, Dr. Johnson’s book is designed to help Latter-day Saints better understand and appreciate the marvelous counsel given in the Word of Wisdom. Much of the evidence he presents in his book is similar to that shared by other Word of Wisdom pioneers. The main difference is that Dr. Johnson (just like Earl Updike) had greater scientific backing to support and encourage a fully plant-based diet. He writes:

We know now that the food plan for optimum health and the prevention of premature death should derive about 10 percent of its calories from fat, about 10 percent from protein and 80 percent from complex carbohydrates. These calories are best supplied by grains, rice, potatoes, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Few or no calories should come from flesh (products of meat, eggs and milk). (p. 104)

Dr. Johnson’s confidence is bolstered not just by science but by numerous other doctors who by then had had many years of experience assisting thousands of patients in overcoming serious chronic illness by switching to a plant-centered diet. While the science today is more advanced, and WFPB experts better understand the dietary factors that contribute to disease, even by 1993 the basic WFPB principles were well understood and used successfully by a wide-variety of medical professionals. Dr. Johnson writes:

Scattered among the numerous diets that consistently fail are several medically-sound diets that follow the tenets of the Word of Wisdom.

These are plant-centered, with emphasis on complex carbohydrates, limits on protein, and severe limits on fat. (p. 95)

The authors of the diets Dr. Johnson cites as “medically-sound” are among the many I have encountered since I began my own plant-centered journey in 2011: Nathan Pritikin; John McDougall, MD; Dean Ornish, MD; and Neal Barnard, MD. Many more WFPB experts could now be added to this list, including Caldwell Esselstyn, MD; Colin Campbell, PhD; Hans Diehl, PhD; and Joel Fuhrman, MD. These are but a few of the many who have demonstrated that the diet revealed through Joseph Smith in 1833 can and does help people obtain their optimal health.

Why the Confusion About Food?

The fact is, both the Latter-day Saint community and the medical community have known the facts about healthy eating and disease prevention for decades. It is not wisdom we lack, but courage to embrace that wisdom. Of course, Satan does not make it easy for us. He constantly confuses us with a plethora of contradictory ideas and additive foods designed to confuse, entice, and mislead us. According to Dr. Johnson, even the doctors are confused. He tells this interesting personal experience in his book:

Last year I attended a medical conference in Wyoming with a group of LDS physicians and their spouses. The main topics of discussion were carcinogens in food, air pollution, and other environmental hazards—yet our first night’s dinner featured a huge cut of roast beef, a dollop of blue cheese dressing on our salads, a rich slice of cheesecake for dessert, and plenty of milk and butter. The next afternoon, while sightseeing on a guided river excursion, we ate some of the blackest, burned baby beef ribs I have ever seen, even though that morning we had heard an excellent presentation about carcinogens in our food, including the hazards of barbecued food. Most of us have not faced the strong evidence that we can reduce our chances of dying from cancer by changing our eating habits. We know we can prevent lung cancer if we stop smoking, but many of us have not embraced the fact that a plant-centered food plan can largely prevent premature death from many cancers. (p. 49)

Is there any doubt that there is tremendous confusion about food in this world? Let’s not forget that there are a great many people who profit from our confusion, people the Lord knew would be working to conspire against us. In D&C 89, the Lord tells us this is why He gave us the Word of Wisdom:

Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation— (D&C 89:4)

This is pretty serious business if the Lord needs to warn and forewarn us! What should we do when we are up against the “evil and designs” of “conspiring” people who have great power in our society? Here is excellent advice from Dr. Johnson:

How can we effect a change? It has to start with adults—and we need to start “cold turkey.” I am aware that it is hard to face a period of cravings for certain foods, disruption of long standing habits and the doubt that change will even be successful. But, as a physician trying to help people rid themselves of tobacco addiction, I have learned that gradual elimination of bad habits does not work. When habits are well-established, it is too tough to change gradually. And, in some ways food habits are an addiction not too different from tobacco addiction.

The good news is that changing to a plant-centered diet brings some immediate and satisfying substitutes—a wide variety of delicious new foods. Also, in only a few days, a week or two at most, feelings of well-being and the assurance that you are doing the right thing take over. It has been my personal observation that, in contrast to the high failure rate in attempts to stop smoking, the success rate in changing to a healthier diet is excellent. If it is introduced properly, it becomes a permanent lifestyle. (p. 58)

Are you ready to take Dr. Johnson’s challenge and embrace a healthy Word of Wisdom diet? See: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”

Where is the WFPB Movement Now?

We now know much more than we did in the early 1990’s. This knowledge continues to confirm the wisdom of a whole food, plant-based diet (WFPB) diet and deepen and strengthen our understanding of D&C 89. In the over 20 years since Earl Updike and Ken Johnson wrote their excellent books, the WFPB movement has grown much larger. Thousands of people, mostly non-LDS, are now experiencing the tremendous blessings of following a Word of Wisdom diet, though most of them don’t realize that is what they are doing!

Currently there is a plethora of amazing WFPB books that strongly support the Word of Wisdom. Almost all, however, are written for non-Latter-day Saints. With some possible exceptions (see “Exceptions” in the Notes), there have been no other books on the Word of Wisdom from a fully whole food, plant-based approach until my book was published in 2013. My book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective, highlights more recent WFPB knowledge. (It is available in both paperback and Kindle format. All profits go into spreading the message about the Word of Wisdom!)

Real Mormons • Real Stories

In this series on Word of Wisdom pioneers, I’d like to pay tribute to another fine LDS man who published his own whole food, plant-based book in 1992, the same time period as the books by Earl Updike and Ken Johnson. His name is Marc Sorenson, and his book, MegaHealth, was a huge success. Dr. Johnson recommended the MegaHealth diet in his book, and Marc endorsed a later book by Earl. Although Marc’s book was written for a non-LDS audience, Marc clearly saw the diet he promoted as the Word of Wisdom. He and his wife founded two of the best health resorts in the world and used their plant-centered diet to bless the lives of thousands of happy customers. Read Marc’s story here, “The results were nearly miraculous.”

Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”

Many Latter-day Saints, even some who have written about the Word of Wisdom, have virtually ignored the many verses in D&C 89 that discuss a healthy diet. Paul Peterson is one of these. His 1972 master’s thesis is considered by many to be one of the best histories of the Word of Wisdom ever written, yet it almost totally ignores the dietary counsel in D&C 89. Interestingly, Dr. Peterson revisited the topic later in his career as a professor at BYU. By this time, he had experienced quite a change of heart! Next time, I’ll be introducing this man who I consider to be a Word of Wisdom pioneer.

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.



All page numbers cited in this article refer to Kenneth E. Johnson, MD, The Word of Wisdom Food Plan: A Medical Review of the Mormon Doctrine (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 1993).

Exceptions (a few books by LDS authors supporting a WFPB approach). Two excellent books written by LDS authors have been written for a non-LDS audience and therefore do not directly address the Word of Wisdom: (1) Marc Sorenson’s MegaHealth (featured above); and (2) James and Colleen Simmons, Original Fast Foods: A Groundbreaking New Dietary Lifestyle Guide (American Fork: Original Fast Foods, 2005). A third book with much valuable information directly addresses the Word of Wisdom and is written by an amazing LDS woman: Joyce Kinmont, Diet Decisions for Latter-day Saints (Grantsville, Utah: Archive Publishers, 1999). If people are aware of other books by LDS authors that support a WFPB perspective, please contact me!