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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.
In D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom, the Lord counsels us to eat “wholesome” plants with “prudence” (D&C 89:10–11); meat is to be used “sparingly” and preferably only in times of winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger (D&C 89:12–15). This suggests a diet of primarily unrefined plant foods with little or no processed foods or animal foods.
When I introduce people to this diet, they quickly realize it is very different from the standard American diet. On average, Americans consume 51 percent refined and processed foods, 42 percent dairy and animal foods, and a mere 7 percent fruits and vegetables. A whole food, plant-based (WFPB) Word of Wisdom diet doesn’t seem very compatible with any of the top ten sources of calories in the American diet: soda pop, cake and pastries, hamburgers, pizza, potato chips, white rice, white bread, cheese, beer, and french fries.
Is this diet too radical? Who could eat this way? I have to confess: before I learned about the benefits of eating a whole food, plant-based diet, I could not imagine giving up animal foods or eliminating processed foods. Just the year before changing my diet a doctor had suggested to my mother that she stop using milk. I remember thinking, “You have got to be CRAZY! How is that even possible?” So, I completely understand the reaction many people have to this diet.
Most people feel the effort required to make and sustain such a dramatic change in diet would be enormous. Some believe it is impossible. Quite a few individuals (I used to be one of them!) can’t imagine giving up butter, cheese, or ice cream. Others won’t sacrifice meat; still others, processed foods, including vegetable oils and the oh-so-delicious variety of high fat/high sugar treats of all kinds.
I admit that following this diet would mean a major change for most people, and yet, despite our addiction to unhealthy foods and the very powerful forces (think advertising, family, and friends) that help support our addictions, the Lord tells us that the Word of Wisdom is, “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints” (D&C 89:3). In other words, as difficult as this counsel may appear at first glance, the Lord knows better. He knows this is doable, even for the “weakest.”
As we know, most non-LDS people indulge in substances that are strictly forbidden in the Word of Wisdom: alcohol, tobacco, coffee and/or tea. Ask them to give up their favorite habit, and they might quickly protest: “That’s impossible!” A great many people believe they cannot live without their morning coffee or evening glass of wine. Even if we are fortunate enough not to know what it is like to be addicted to such substances, we understand giving them up can be extremely difficult. But is it impossible? Think of the hundreds of thousands of people who join the LDS Church each year, most of whom do have to give up one or more of these substances.
During a Relief Society lesson in our ward on the Word of Wisdom, one of the sisters shared this personal experience, which illustrates that sacrifices are relative to what we feel we are getting in return:
When I was young, we lived in Cleveland where the winters were cold and humid. We’d get chilled to the bone, so I started drinking coffee very early in life. The adults didn’t see anything wrong with it. My grandmother added a little whiskey to my coffee so I wouldn’t catch cold going to school. Later, she gave me warm milk with a little whiskey to treat cramps. By the time I was a teenager, I consumed coffee regularly every day. I was a diligent and ambitious student and felt coffee was needed to get me through studying late hours.
But when I was 17, my junior year in high school, I went to an LDS cottage meeting that was missionary-oriented. They discussed the apostasy and the Restoration and Joseph Smith’s First Vision and some converts bore their testimonies. I heard that, and I immediately said, “Yeah, that is true.” It was so obvious to me. It rang like a bell. I never fasted, or studied, or prayed about it. I heard it and just felt, “Yeah, that is right.” That is just the way it was.
I went home and told my family I was going to join the Mormons, and they didn’t think anything of it. They thought it was just a passing thing. But the next morning at breakfast, I passed up the coffee. I said, “Mormons don’t drink coffee, so I’m not going to drink the coffee.” I never drank coffee or alcohol again. I had no desire. The decision was made. I loved coffee, but I wanted to be a Mormon, and Mormons didn’t drink coffee, so I didn’t drink coffee. Period. That was it. I didn’t have withdrawals. I was so excited about hearing the gospel, I could have given up breathing. It was like shedding a skin. Does a butterfly miss being a caterpillar? 
When I talk with people about this diet, a few tell me they could never eat this way, that they don’t have enough willpower. They admit this diet would be better for them, but they believe they are incapable of doing it. Because of D&C 89:3, I assume this is not true. Again, the diet is “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” Have you ever looked around at the generation ahead of you, seen the illness that abounds, and wondered, is it inevitable? Is suffering from these chronic illnesses just what happens as we age? It doesn’t have to be that way! In truth, eating the Word of Wisdom way is easier than living with heart disease, cancer, or paralysis from a stroke. How is it that people who feel they can’t eat this way are nevertheless able to survive for years with chronic illness?
Compared to living with chronic disease, this diet is simple. It does involve learning new cooking skills and making changes to our lifestyle, but it is not brain surgery or rocket science. It is simply switching to a diet of mostly whole, unrefined plant foods made into delicious meals and snacks. If this feels unnatural to us, it may be because we have grown up in a world of very unnatural foods.
Furthermore, a WFPB diet is not a diet of austerity. This earth was not created in such a way that Adam and Eve and their descendants did not have the pleasure of enjoying scrumptious foods until Chili’s and the Cheesecake Factory opened for business. The Lord has blessed us with an earth filled with diverse plants of endless variety, taste, smell, and texture. I love these verses in D&C 59 that indicate God’s delight in blessing us with the fullness of the earth:
Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man. (D&C 59:18–20)
It is true that a child who grows up on Chicken McNuggets, french fries and soda pop will have a hard time adjusting to whole foods, but that is not because these foods are not delicious. Even adults whose palates are accustomed to processed foods with layers of salt, fat, and sugar may need some time to acquire the ability to savor the more subtle delights of wholesome plant foods. But that ability does come. Our tastes change! Of course, it is easier for someone who grows up eating healthy food, but regardless of our age or tastes, we can do it.
Actually, most people I talk to don’t say they can’t do it; they frankly tell me they don’t want to do it. And I understand that. Because the Church has not mandated it, we are (I think wisely) left to decide for ourselves the meaning of the Word of Wisdom and how we want to observe it. We get to choose for ourselves. The Church has spared us from the worst of problems by spelling out the things that are most harmful. But we get to choose how we pursue the promised blessings of “health in their navel and marrow to their bones . . . wisdom and great treasures of knowledge . . . run and not be weary, and . . . walk and not faint ” (D&C 89:18–20).
For me, the choice was not hard. When I consider the precious promises in the Word of Wisdom, the sacrifices seem very small compared with these blessings. I want to be the butterfly!
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.”
 Joel Fuhrman, Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), 49.
 Gladys Block, “Foods Contributing to Energy Intake in the US: Data from NHANES III and NHANES 1999–2000,” Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 17 (2004): 442.
 Jane Birch, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (Provo, UT: Fresh Awakenings, 2013), 76–77.