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 recent articles, I’ve been making the case that our understanding of the Word of Wisdom has slowly evolved since 1833. In the last article (Our Evolving Understanding) I discussed the role of science in the unfolding of the wisdom in D&C 89. Although we Latter-day Saints were given this precious revelation, it does not mean we have had a corner on the market of understanding dietary truths. In fact, we have never been leaders in establishing the truths taught by God in D&C 89. Others, not of our faith, have always led the charge.
This has certainly been the case in the most recent development in our understanding of the Word of Wisdom: the move toward a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) perspective. In this article I contrast earlier interpretations of the Word of Wisdom with the more recent WFPB perspective and introduce the first Latter-day Saint to write a book on the Word of Wisdom from this perspective.
“I Teach Them Correct Principles”
It should be clear to all of us by now that the Word of Wisdom is not a simple list of dietary do’s and don’ts. As Joseph Smith taught, “I teach them correct principles and allow them to govern themselves.” The Word of Wisdom is a set of principles. It is up to us to understand the meaning of these principles, and this is something that can take quite a bit of time and personal research, study, and prayer.
In the last article, I detailed the way our understanding of the three dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom have evolved over time. Here is a brief recap:
Principle #1: The Lord ordained wholesome plants in the season thereof for our constitution, nature, and use. (D&C 89:10–11)
The early Saints did not even recognize this as a principle because it was already their reality: their diet was based on locally grown, relatively unprocessed “wholesome” produce. As processed foods became more widely available in the early 1900’s and science revealed the nature and complexity of the nutrients in whole foods, this principle was increasingly emphasized. Now, most dietary plans emphasize whole foods over highly processed foods, and yet processed foods are still a significant part of the typical Mormon diet.
Principle #2: The Lord ordained the flesh of animals for our use, but it should be used sparingly and preferably only in times of winter, cold, and famine. (D&C 89:12–13, 15)
This principle was little noted before the Saints immigrated west, but once they were settled in Utah, that began to change. Long before science had firmly established the health hazards of animal foods, Church leaders began to encourage the Saints to eat meat sparingly. As the science increasingly revealed the health hazards of meat consumption, more was spoken and written on the topic. Most pointedly, an entire LDS General Conference address on this topic was given in 1948. LDS medical experts, including most of the Word of Wisdom pioneers I have featured, have drawn on science to teach the Saints the importance of reducing meat consumption. The quality of the science used by some of these Word of Wisdom champions has been impressive. Still, Latter-day Saints, as a whole, remain big meat eaters.
Principle #3: All grain is good and is ordained by the Lord to be the staff of life. (D&C 89:14, 16)
Not until very recently has there been a real need to defend this third important principle of the Word of Wisdom. Not just throughout the history of the Latter-day Saints, but also throughout human history, grains (and other starchy plants) have always been used as the “staff of life” or staple of the diet. Historically, the primary way Latter-day Saints have addressed this third principle is in relation to the use of whole grains over processed grains. It is only recently that books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain have persuaded some Latter-day Saints to question this principle. I suspect that the consumption of grains among Latter-day Saints is now the lowest it has ever been in our history.
Despite the many sermons and writings on the Word of Wisdom throughout our history, a typical Latter-day Saint diet today still includes plenty of processed foods, too few wholesome plant foods, too much food from animals, and far too few wholesome grains. Sounds like we are in need of some type of dietary revolution!
The Whole Food, Plant-based Revolution
The “whole food, plant-based” movement has been steadily growing for decades. The science it is based on reaches back to the early 1900’s. The message of the power of eating a primarily plant-based diet of whole foods started reaching a popular audience in the 1970’s, but it has more recently exploded in global consciousness with the 2006 publication of the book The China Study and the 2011 release of the documentary Forks Over Knives. As a consequence, thousands of people not of our faith have now been taught, and more importantly persuaded to live, the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom. Even without membership in the Church, they are reaping many of the amazing promises the Lord attached to this revelation.
My 2013 book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom, is subtitled “Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective.” But I’m not the first Mormon to connect the current WFPB movement with the Word of Wisdom. Since publishing my book, I’ve found many other Latter-day Saints who have known and been persuaded by these findings for literally decades.
One of the earliest LDS WFPB advocates was Earl F. Updike. I feature Earl Updike in this article because he went beyond studying and embracing a WFPB diet, he saw the connection between this diet and the Word of Wisdom and wrote a powerful book on the topic, the first of its kind! 
Word of Wisdom Pioneer: Earl F. Updike (1922–2007)
From a young age, Earl Updike had a keen interest in health, diet, and disease prevention. He later recalled, “At age five I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a medical doctor so that I could help sick people and find the cause of disease.” Although his interest in a medical career never abated, his life took a different path after his mission when his mother became very sick with cancer and his father needed him to take over his business. Earl responded to his father’s request and turned out to be a talented businessman, but he never lost his passion for good nutrition and health.
Earl’s children recall his lamenting the diet of the people he served as a young missionary. He loved the people in the Southern States, but he felt strongly that they were eating “way too much animal fat.” Not that Earl felt his own diet was much better. He had married an excellent cook and with that came plenty of rich delicious foods, like pies, cakes, and rolls with honeybutter. Dairy was plentiful; milk was delivered daily. It was very high cholesterol and not very plant-based. While visiting the family’s favorite restaurant, “Mac’s Chuck Wagon,” Earl could often be heard grousing, “We are all eating way too much meat.”
During this time period, Earl recalls:
I never lost the desire to find out what causes people to suffer from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and other degenerative diseases. By 1962 at age forty, I had decided that diet must have a great deal of effect on the cause of the major diseases. I began reading everything I could find about health and nutrition.
In 1971, Earl’s youngest son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Having already lost his mother to cancer, this diagnosis caused more soul searching and a renewed desire for research and study. During the next 20 years, Earl sought out key scientific findings and discovered some of the earliest work being done by WFPB experts.
Fortunately for us, another of Earl’s sons persuaded him to gather his research into a book so that the great Word of Wisdom message could be shared with everyone. In 1991, Earl published The Mormon Diet: 14 Days to New Vigor and Health. This book is a landmark in the history of Word of Wisdom pioneers, the first of its kind to clearly link the burgeoning WFPB research with the Word of Wisdom. It is not easy to be a pioneer, and huge credit must go to Earl F. Updike for plowing this new ground, bringing to light the power of a WFPB diet and demonstrating how it illuminates our understanding of the Word of Wisdom.
The Mormon Diet: 14 Days to New Vigor and Health (1991)
Earl Updike’s lifetime of research and study is evident in the extensive footnotes and scientific citations in his book. In the introduction he notes:
Since 1979 there has been an avalanche of information on the direct relationship between the types of food we eat and degenerative diseases from which we suffer and die. These conditions include coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and many other modern-day scourges.
Over the past twelve years it has become increasingly clear that the consumption of animal products (chicken, fish, red meat, dairy products, and eggs) causes disease, while the eating of plant foods creates health, strength, and well-being. This corresponds exactly with the revealed diet of the Lord. (pp. xiii–xiv)
The Word of Wisdom diet Earl advocates is based on the “new four food groups” introduced by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit (p. vii). It is a diet low in cholesterol, fats, salt, sugar, super-refined food, food additives, added vegetable fats, concentrated chemical poisons, and drugs from animal products. It is rich in the nutrients most vital to good health: vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a myriad other nutrients as packaged by the Lord in whole foods for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10).
The term “whole food, plant-based” (WFPB) had not been coined by 1991, so Earl does not use this phrase. Instead he shows how this dietary approach matches the wisdom we have in D&C 89 and refers to this simply as “The Mormon Diet—A Word of Wisdom.”
The Amazing Results of a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet
What immediately strikes me as I review Earl’s book is his passionate enthusiasm for what the research on a WFPB diet reveals about the power of the Word of Wisdom. Clearly, it surprised Earl, as it surprised me when I first encountered this way of eating. I think it would surprise most Mormons, even those who understand the promises clearly stated in D&C 89.
Of course, the promises in D&C 89 have always inspired Mormons—and for good reason. Any improvement in diet results in at least some improvement in health. But moderate changes often result is only moderate improvements. The difference between earlier interpretations of the Word of Wisdom and the new WFPB interpretation was the radically better health it not only promised, but also delivered. In my opinion, the radically improved health a WFPB approach to the Word of Wisdom delivers is a sure indication that previous interpretations of the Word of Wisdom had not fully plumbed the hidden treasures in D&C 89. Does it make any sense to favor an interpretation of the Word of Wisdom that delivers less impressive results?
What are the amazing results of eating a WFPB Word of Wisdom diet? The evidence Earl cites demonstrates that if we followed this diet:
very few of us would suffer from major diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, diet-related cancers, osteoporosis, urinary disease, arthritis, or obesity. Few of us would be bothered by minor, yet painful, diseases such as diverticulitis, hiatus hernia, appendicitis, gallstones, hemorrhoids, kidney stones, varicose veins, and constipation. (p. 13)
Just think what this dramatic reduction in disease would mean to us as a people! Plus here are just a few side benefits Earl documents in his book:
- “Within two days of the time you stop eating animal foods and fat, your body begins to heal itself” (p. 22).
- “You can, with few exceptions, eat all you can hold of the plant foods, three meals per day, and in-between meals too, over a total lifetime and never be overweight” (p. 33).
- “The . . . diet is easy to follow. You never have to count calories” (p. 33). The food can be easy to prepare, and cleanup time is dramatically reduced (p. 87).
- Eating this way can enable us to feed much more of the world’s population and help end starvation (p. 76).
- Eating this can also help preserve soil erosion, reduce deforestation, save water, and cut down on pollution (pp. 76–78).
What Differentiates This Diet From Earlier Approaches?
What are some of the key differences between earlier approaches to the Word of Wisdom and the approach Earl Updike documents in his book? Note the increased light a WFPB approach sheds on each of the three dietary principles found in D&C 89.
#1: Total focus on “wholesome” plant foods and elimination of processed foods
While most diets emphasize whole foods over processed foods, until recently, it has been relatively uncommon to suggest that the ideal diet totally eliminates all highly processed or refined foods. While Earl’s recipes allow for very small amounts of processed foods, he suggests an ideal diet consists of whole foods, foods with all the nutrients the Lord packaged them with. This gives us much greater insight into D&C 89:10–11.
Restricting high fat foods, including what many believe to be “healthy” fats
A wholesome plant-based diet automatically cuts out much of the fat in our diets, since most of it comes from animal foods. As Earl notes, before vegetable oils and fats became widely used and other high fat plant foods (avocados, olives, coconuts, and nuts) were expensive or not as available, most of the fat in our diet came almost exclusively from animal foods. Now, many plant-based fats are available, and it is common to think of olive and coconut oils (for example) as “health foods,” even though, as Earl points out, they are clearly not “whole foods” but just the fat of whole foods. The documented health hazards of these refined fat foods suggests they are anything but “wholesome,” which is the standard set by the Word of Wisdom. Eliminating these foods has a dramatic impact on health, and sheds light on the first dietary principle in the Word of Wisdom.
Although high fat whole plant foods are obviously much better than refined fats, they are not necessary. Earl demonstrates that sufficient healthy fats are found in all plant foods and that high fat plant foods add more calories than nutrition to one’s diet. As he puts it, “fats are fattening” (p. 32). The Lord’s diet would not rely heavily on foods that cannot be sustainably grown for all of God’s children.
#2: Elimination of meat, except in times of need
Previously, most of our Word of Wisdom pioneers taught that meat should be eaten sparingly, and preferably reserved for times of cold or famine. In contrast, research shows that the health hazards of meat suggest that not only should it be used sparingly, but ideally it should not be used, except in times of need. This gives us much greater insight into what “winter, cold and famine” means in D&C 89:12–13. (See also D&C 89:15.)
Recognition of the health hazards of both dairy and eggs
As I noted last week, dairy and eggs have long been accepted by most Latter-day Saints as compatible with a healthy Word of Wisdom diet. Even as the health hazards of these animal foods have come to light, relatively few LDS experts have suggested we’d be better without them. In contrast, WFPB experts point out that the nutritional profile of dairy and eggs is relatively similar to that of the flesh of animals, so it is not surprising that consuming these foods results in the same negative health consequences. Understanding this makes it obvious why there is no endorsement for dairy or eggs in D&C 89.
The ideal diet contains no diary or eggs, though Earl’s recipes allow for some low-fat versions (something he would undoubtedly not have done had he had more current WFPB research available to him). While the Word of Wisdom does not use the words “diary” or “eggs,” a WFPB perspective sheds light on which of the three dietary principles best applies to the use of these foods.
#3: Grains and other starches as the staple of the diet
A WFPB diet is based on grains and other starchy plants. Word of Wisdom pioneers have always championed grains, but Earl takes his cue from WFPB experts and adds other starchy foods, like potatoes, to the foundation of the diet. WFPB experts emphasize the importance of getting the bulk of our calories from starch rather than animal foods, which is a principle clearly communicated in D&C 89:12–16.
A Radical Interpretation?
Is a whole food, plant-based approach to 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. Is it conceivable that inspired WFPB experts have developed a diet that is more beneficial to human health than the Lord’s own wisdom? Or is it more likely that the Lord inspired the WFPB experts and that their research can help us better understand the dietary counsel the Lord provides us in the Word of Wisdom?
Despite our having a revelation from God and decades of research supporting the principles of the Word of Wisdom, we Latter-day Saints still eat an enormous amount of processed foods, as much meat as ever, and increasingly less grains. In short, as a people we have not paid a great deal of attention to any of the amazing Word of Wisdom pioneers throughout our history.
But what we “as a people” have done throughout our history does not need to apply to you “as an individual.” You are free to study these issues, to prayerfully read the Word of Wisdom, and to seek for God’s counsel and direction. Yes, you are free to claim the blessings of a Word of Wisdom diet, as Earl Updike and other Word of Wisdom pioneers have done throughout our history!
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”
My book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective, highlights more recent WFPB research. It is available in both paperback and Kindle format. All profits go into spreading the message about the Word of Wisdom!
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
The publication of Earl Updike’s book (and subsequent cookbook ) no doubt blessed the lives of a great many. But long before his book was published, he shared the wisdom of his research with family and friends and anyone who would listen. Next week, I’ll feature an amazing book written by one of Earl Updike’s closest friends, a medical doctor who experienced several health crises before waking up the wisdom his friend Earl had been sharing with him.
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.
 Earl F. Updike, The Mormon Diet: 14 Days to New Vigor and Health (Bayfield, Colorado: Best Possible Health, 1991). Updike’s book is full of hard-hitting facts, backed by research, and communicated in the context of God’s revelation of the Word of Wisdom. The heart of the book is an exploration of several pressing dietary issues: cholesterol, fats, milk and dairy products, and cancer. He also explores the environmental issues of diet and the role of exercise. The book concludes with lots of practice advice: two weeks of menus with recipes, shopping hints, suggestions for eating out, vacations, travel, and friends, and lots of extra recipes.
 Updike acknowledges WFPB expert John A. McDougall, M.D. as his “inspiration for a number of years.” Dr. McDougall gave Updike “good advice in the formulation of this book” and is cited most frequently. Other WFPB experts who influenced Updike include Denis Burkitt, M.D., Nathan Pritikin, Dean Ornish, M.D., and Neal Barnard, M.D. Dr. Barnard wrote an endorsement which appears on the back cover of the book.
 See Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Healthy Fats & Vegetable Oils,” Meridian Magazine (July 8, 2014).
 Ethel C. Updike, Dorothy E. Smith, and Earl F. Updike, The Mormon Diet Cookbook (Bayfield, Colorado: Best Possible Health, 1992). Note: this cookbook allows for small portions of defatted animal foods. More recent WFPB research argues even more strongly against these exceptions than it did in 1992.