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 was the final article in the series on Word of Wisdom Pioneers. To view all the articles in this series, see: Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers. Of course, due to space I was not able to talk about all the Latter-day Saints who have promoted a Word of Wisdom diet. Here, for example, are all the books on the Word of Wisdom that I have been able to locate: Books on the Word of Wisdom.
Despite having God’s dietary plan in the middle of our scriptures, we Mormons are not immune from following every wind of dietary doctrine that comes across the Internet or in a bestselling book. No doubt almost every diet has some redeeming value, but how do they all measure against the Word of Wisdom? Today in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I take a closer look at how one particularly popular diet, the Paleo diet, stacks up against D&C 89.
The “Paleo diet” is among the most popular of the current diet trends in the U.S. According to Google, it was the most searched for diet in both 2013 and 2014. Paleo books and cookbooks are regularly found among the top ten in diet and nutrition.
The basic concept behind the Paleo diet is simple: the human body is best adapted to the foods eaten during the Paleolithic era, which lasted for 2.5 million years and only ended with the advent of agriculture a mere 10,000 years ago. Proponents of this diet claim that with the advent of agriculture came a host of health problems that did not exist before humans took to tilling the soil, since 10,000 years is not enough time for human bodies to adapt to the “new” foods. The basic idea behind the Paleo diet is that if we returned to eating like the caveman, we would all be much more healthy.
What is the food that the Paleolithic people supposedly ate? The theory is that since this was before agriculture, these hunter-gatherers subsisted primarily on lean meat, nuts, and berries. Obviously processed foods (including sugar and refined vegetable oils) were not available to these early hunter-gatherers, so according to this theory our bodies are not adapted to these foods, nor are we adapted to the grains or legumes that they believe we began eating in the last 10,000 years. The Paleo diet excludes all grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, processed foods, and anything else that Paleo experts believe was not consumed during the Paleolithic Era.
How Does Paleo Compare to the Word of Wisdom?
One feature of the Paleo diet is strikingly similar to the Word of Wisdom: the emphasis on fresh, unprocessed, unrefined plant foods. Obviously hunter-gatherers did not fill their empty hours eating junk food. During the Paleolithic Era they did not have the preservation technologies we have today, so their diets consisted of seasonal, fresh, whole foods. The Word of Wisdom tells us God ordained “all wholesome herbs . . . in the season thereof” for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). Fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables are a part of both the Word of Wisdom and the Paleo diet, although frankly every sensible nutrition expert recommends these foods.
Based on this feature of the Paleo diet, I conclude that it is superior to the Standard American Diet, which is filled with sugar, fat, refined flour, and other processed foods, including junk food. Surely the Paleolithic people ate much more wholesome foods than we do today! I am not surprised that many people who switch from a Standard American Diet to a Paleo diet lose weight and feel much better.
Even so, eating wholesome plants is just one of the three dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom, and it is the only one the Paleo diet supports. In contrast, the Paleo diet appears to contradict the other two dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom. Although there is some value in a Paleo diet, I’m not sure 1 out of 3 is a winning formula.
The Role of Meat: Paleo v. the Word of Wisdom
The second dietary principle in the Word of Wisdom is stated in verses 12–13 and reinforced in verse 15:
Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
. . . the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth . . . these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger. (D&C 89:12–13, 15)
While Paleo diet experts assert that Paleolithic peoples got the bulk of their calories from consuming animals, other scientists who specialize in the Paleolithic time period report that the evidence indicates a very wide variety of Paleolithic diets, including high-fiber/high-starch (i.e. high plant-based) diets. But regardless of what the Paleolithic peoples ate, the Lord has given us direct instruction for our day regarding our consumption of meat. According to D&C 89, meat is to be used sparingly and preferably only in times of need (winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger). According to the Word of Wisdom, this is the “order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2).
In contrast, Paleo experts recommend a diet heavy in meat consumption. For example, according to Loren Cordain, possibly the most prominent expert on Paleo eating:
- The first of “Seven Keys of the Paleo Diet” is: “Eat a relatively high amount of animal protein compared to that in the typical American diet.” (endnote 3, p. 25)
- One of the “ground rules” of Paleo is: “All the lean meats, fish, and seafood you can eat” (p. 23).
- Ideally, it is recommended that people get more than half (55%) from the flesh and organs of animals.(p. 43)
- “In order to get enough protein and calories, you should eat animal food at almost every meal.” (p.105)
The Paleo diet is not a “eat meat sparingly” diet, much less a diet where the flesh of animals is eaten only in winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger.
The Role of Grain: Paleo v. the Word of Wisdom
The third dietary principle in the Word of Wisdom is stated in verses 14–17.
All grain is ordained for the use of man . . . to be the staff of life . . .
All grain is good for the food of man . . .
Nevertheless, wheat for man . . . (D&C 89:14, 16–17)
The Lord has ordained grain to be the “staff of life,” or the staple of our diet. What is a staple? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a staple food means, “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption.” In other words, the Lord’s counsel to his saints in the last days is to give grain the “chief place” among all the foods we consume. It appears that grains are the foundation for a healthy Word of Wisdom diet. And of course, the Lord makes special mention of wheat for human consumption in verse 17.
In contrast, the Paleo diet excludes all grains, claiming they are unsuited for human consumption and singles out wheat as the worst of the lot. In the place of grains, the Paleo diet makes meat (and other animal parts) the staff of life.
Paleo experts agree with Dr. William Davis who asserts that grain, and specifically wheat, is a “perfect, chronic poison.”. Here is a typical statement made by Paleo experts about grain:
Apart from maintaining social conventions in certain situations and obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains. Believe me – I’ve searched far and wide and asked everyone I can for just one good reason to eat cereal grains, but no one can do it. . . . grains are first and foremost on the list of foods to avoid . . . they are completely and utterly pointless in the context of a healthy diet . . . stop eating grains. Period. Full stop. They really are that bad.
Far from labeling grain as “good,” and making grain the staff of life, the Paleo diet insists that all grains are “bad” and should ideally be no part of our diet. On top of this, Paleo experts are adamant that of all grains wheat is the worst. I’m not sure there could be a sharper contrast with the Word of Wisdom.
Why So Popular Among Latter-day Saints?
Despite the contradictions with the Word of Wisdom, the Paleo diet is surprisingly popular among Latter-day Saints. I am certain most LDS Paleo enthusiasts are intelligent, faithful Church members (since some are my friends, I know they are!). Having read a large amount of Paleo diet literature (books and blogs) and listened to dozens of hours of Paleo podcasts, I can see why people are attracted to this diet. Again, there is no doubt it can be better than the average diet of many Americans. But the fact that this diet does not hold up to the standard set by the Lord in the Word of Wisdom may be a clue that some of the evidence presented by Paleo experts may not be as conclusive as the claims they make. (In future articles, I will be discussing more of these claims at greater length.)
Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that there are many good elements of the Paleo diet that are worthwhile and can help us understand its popularity. In fact, many of the arguments made by Paleo experts match those made by the whole food, plant-based diet experts who promote a diet strikingly similar to the Word of Wisdom. Depending on the Paleo expert, this includes:
- Focusing on real foods (relatively unprocessed and unrefined)
- Eliminating soda pop and other sugary (and even sugar free) drinks
- Excluding all dairy
- Recognizing the dangers of factory-farmed meats
- Reducing high-fat foods, including fatty meats, eggs, and nuts
- Reducing or eliminating alcoholic beverages and coffee
- Reducing salt and eliminating sugar
- Increasing the Omega 3 to 6 fatty acid ratio
- Warning about environmental contamination of much of our seafood
Whether on a Paleo or whole food, plant-based diet, it is no surprise that people who follow these healthy recommendations do better than people on a typical American diet!
Can the Lord Lead People to Paleo?
If you know Latter-days who are trying the Paleo diet, you may also know that many of them feel the Lord led them to this diet, and that this diet has helped them resolve multiple health issues. If the Paleo diet contradicts the Word of Wisdom, how can this be?
Let’s be clear that NO human expert has a corner on the truth. None of the popular diets are 100% correct. None are all bad. In fact, most of them support various elements of the Word of Wisdom, as I noted above (and in previous articles). More importantly, many of them are far better then the Standard American Diet, which is filled with junk processed foods, refined carbs, factory farmed meat, sugar, unhealthy fats, and outright addictive substances.
In my experience, when we seek the Lord for an answer, He leads us step-by-step, line upon line. This is not because He is teasing us, but because that is the only way we can follow. People struggling to find God do not usually receive a full-blown vision leading them straight to Temple Square. That may not be the best next step for them, or they may not be ready to accept that. Instead, their path can end up being quite the adventure, involving multiple experiences, people, books, and even religions as they wind their way slowly toward more truth. As they learn, line upon line, each new twist and turn can be a significant, valuable part of the journey, but they’d be mistaken to regard any part of the path as the end of the journey. Even if they join the Mormon Church, that is not “the end”—it is just another beginning as they progress along the path to become fully like the Savior.
So yes, I have no doubt the Lord can lead someone to the Paleo diet, or any number of other diets (including a whole food, plant-based diet) as “part” of that person’s journey. But I think we should be hesitant to claim that just because we felt inspired to take a certain path that that path is the final answer for us, much less for everyone else. Again, I include myself in this analysis. We all need to be humble about where we are in relation to reaching the end of our journeys.
I do not believe I know exactly what the Word of Wisdom means. I do my best to share what I think, but the fact is, I’m pretty sure I have much more to learn and many more miles to travel on my personal path. I want any Paleo enthusiast reading these articles to know that I’m happy they are finding success. Please do not take any criticism I make of the Paleo diet personally. I know many LDS Paleo proponents are wonderful people who really care about health, have made great sacrifices, and are doing many good things, and experiencing some wonderful results. I genuinely applaud their effort.
But I also invite LDS Paleo enthusiasts to think a bit more about how the Paleo diet compares with the Word of Wisdom and see if contrasting the two diets might help all of us learn a little more that might prove useful down the road.
The Value of the Word of Wisdom in a Confusing Nutritional Scene
As we all know, there are a plethora of diet choices in the world. With the explosion of both information and easy access to an abundant variety of food options, we now have more choice about what we eat than ever before. Proponents of each diet are able to pull together an impressive amount of “evidence” for their favored way of eating: science, testimonials, clinical studies, expert analysis, etc. We simply do not have enough time to thoroughly evaluate all of the evidence presented for and against each diet.
The fact is: people with equally impressive credentials support all types of contradictory positions on the science of an ideal diet. While we’d like to think we are able to discern who makes the best scientific case, it is clear that equally intelligent people can come to dramatically different conclusions. Clearly, being able to choose an optimal diet is not about intelligence.
I also do not believe choosing an ideal diet is about one’s level of spirituality. I know people of great spiritual depth who have chosen a wide variety of diets.
Does that mean we have no hope of choosing an ideal diet for ourselves? This is where the Word of Wisdom comes in. You may not agree with me that a whole food, plant-based diet best matches the Word of Wisdom, but I hope you’ll agree that the Lord knows our bodies best, and whatever diet we choose should match His advice as much as possible. At the very least, it should not contradict it.
As we study the science, let’s also make sure to prayerfully read and study the Word of Wisdom with a sincere desire to know and follow the truth. I testify that if we do this and then do what we feel is right, as we take that next step, even if it is into the dark, the light will follow us, and the Lord will continue to guide us.
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
I’m excited to announce 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”
This brief comparison of the Paleo diet and the Word of Wisdom covers only the basics. Next week I plan to explore one of the principles of the Word of Wisdom in greater depth: making grain the staff of life. Why does it matter whether the Paleo diet excludes the use of grain?
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.
 There are several Paleo and Paleo-like diets: Ancestral diet, Caveman diet, Stone Age Diet, Neaderthin, Pre-agricultural Diet, Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Primal Blueprint.
 Peter S. Ungar & Mark F. Teaford, Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2002).
 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), 25. Subsequent page numbers in the text refer to this book.
 “staple, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).
 Amanda Cochran, “Modern wheat a ‘perfect, chronic poison,’ doctor says,” CBS News (June 21, 2013.
 Mark Sisson, “Why Grains Are Unhealthy,” Mark’s Daily Apple (Blog). n.d.
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: What about the Experts Who Disagree?” Meridian Magazine (October 18, 2014).