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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.
This is the tenth and final article in a series on the human microbiome from the perspective of the Word of Wisdom. If you’ve missed any of the previous articles, here is the complete series:
- The Mighty Microbes in Your Body
- The Good and Bad News about Our Microbiome
- Let’s Save Our Microbial Heritage!
- 5 Ways to Care for Your Microbiome
- Food Cravings, Obesity, Mood, and Our Gut
- Decisions, Not DNA, Determine Destiny
- Meat and the Microbiome
- Gut Reactions to Low Carb Diets
- Don’t Give Up On Carbs!
Some readers may wonder why I’ve spent so much time on this one subject. I hope in this final article I can articulate, as plainly as possible, why this topic is critically important.
A First Great Awakening
In 2011 I had my first awakening to the hidden power of the Word of Wisdom: the power to prevent and even resolve the vast majority of common chronic illnesses. What awoke me to this understanding was realizing that medical professionals (not of our faith) had discovered a way of eating in harmony with the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom. As a consequence, they were seeing far greater health benefits than had ever been recorded among Latter-day Saints. I realized then that while we Mormons have been blessed by heeding the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom, we’ve been missing out on much of the power in D&C 89 by ignoring most of the dietary counsel in this revelation.
Understandably, we Mormons (myself included!) have inherited the diet and culinary prejudices of our time. We’ve largely believed what the world has been telling us about food and nutrition. Consequently, the dietary counsel in D&C 89 has appeared vague and confusing. Many who have studied it have concluded that the counsel must be “outdated” (meant only for Joseph Smith’s day). Others have re-interpreted the passages to fit with current dietary thinking. Very few throughout the history of Mormonism have been able to simply take the Lord at His word, and many of those who tried were ridiculed for doing so.
As it turns out, the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom contains very little to address the health concerns in Joseph Smith’s day and a great deal that addresses the health concerns of today. What many Mormons are now discovering is that understanding the power of a whole food, plant-based diet to prevent and reverse disease uncovers the plain meaning of the revelation in D&C 89. Seeing and experiencing the power of changing one’s diet lifts the veil of ambiguity. For me, all the pieces came together as I understood how the Western diet is the primary factor leading to most cases of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, cancer, arthritis, kidney disease, osteoporosis, obesity, and the like.
While the awakening I experienced in 2011 was new to me, it is evident in retrospect that much of what we now understand has been in the scientific literature for well over 100 years. Some of it has even appeared in our own Church magazines! I’m not the only one who has been experiencing this awakening.
A Second Great Awakening
The second great awakening occurred (for me) in 2015 as I began to more fully appreciate the ancient and intimate role microbes play in our health and wellbeing. I was happy enough to have discovered that the Lord’s food plan for his children addresses most of our major chronic illnesses, enables us lose excess weight, and helps us feel fantastic. But this second awakening taught me that the exact same food plan is ideally suited for the 100 trillion microbes that live in us. This is important because they are integral to the core biological functions that take place in our bodies, including digestion, metabolism, our immune system, and our central nervous system.
The more I study this topic, the more evident it becomes that continued research in this field holds the key to unlocking the mystery of many relatively modern diseases that are beginning to explode across the face of this planet—allergies, food intolerances, gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune diseases, and so forth—diseases that the current medical world is often powerless to address.
We Can’t Ignore This Modern Plague
It is the serious and profoundly disturbing nature of the diseases connected to a dysfunctional microbiome that has most caught my attention. We can’t ignore this modern “plague” that is keeping too many of us, young and old, from living the lives our Heavenly Father would like us to live. Autoimmune diseases, for example, often entail life-long, debilitating conditions that confound modern medicine. Allergic disorders afflict as much as 40% of the US population.
While not all of modern disease can be resolved through diet and lifestyle, so much of it can. Here is what the research shows in a nutshell:
- A healthy microbiome is essential to almost every aspect of our health.
- A healthy microbiome is nourished by eating a non-processed (whole), fiber-rich, plant-based diet with minimal amounts of animal foods (if any).
- Currently, we in the Western world aren’t getting anywhere near the level of whole food fiber that our bodies are designed to consume.
- As a result, the number, type, and diversity of microbes in our bodies have radically altered for the worse, and some of these changes may be permanent.
- Many of the resulting diseases are serious and can last a lifetime.
- By changing our diet and lifestyle, we can do much to restore a healthy microbiome.
- It appears that the most critical years for developing a healthy microbiome are the first few years of life; the earlier we start protecting our microbiome, the better.
We’ve Got to Save Our Children
It is one thing to know that we in the Western world are losing the microbial heritage we received from our ancestors; it is another to realize that we may be giving our children a permanently diminished inheritance. If this continues, the children of this generation may never be able to recover the microbiome that protected our ancestors against many of the destructive, life-threatening diseases we are experiencing today.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not trying to make even one of our dear mothers or fathers in Zion feel guilty or contribute to their already overwhelming burdens. My intent is actually the opposite. Any parent who has supported a child through one of the many long-term, debilitating modern diseases has the experience to know that the work of changing the diet of kids pales in comparison to the work involved in nurturing a child through chronic disease.
If we want to provide our children with the rich biological heritage they deserve, we can’t wait for them to grow up and decide if they want to eat a healthy diet or not. If we give them what they want, they are going to choose chicken nuggets, mac ‘n cheese, cold cereal with cow’s milk, cheese pizza, salty snacks, and sweet treats. This fiber-poor diet sets children up for more than just weight gain, acne, and difficulty concentrating. It may set them up for lifelong health conditions that will impact their ability to serve a successful mission, get an education, fully contribute in the workplace, bear and raise children, and serve the Lord and His kingdom.
Of course, not every parent has full control over their children’s diet, just as not every parent has full control over the values their children are taught. And allowing children to learn about agency (as well as the consequences of their choices) is an important part of parenthood. I know that the Lord understands this and that He does not want us to run faster than we are able. But I want us to rejoice in doing whatever we are able to do, knowing that we can, with confidence, leave the rest in the Lord’s hands and await His mighty miracles.
Important Lessons From the Great Influenza
At the dawn of modern medicine, brilliant scientists discovered deadly microbes, like Vibrio cholera, Giardia lamblia, and Staphylococcus aureus that had long wrecked havoc on human health. With no doubt the help of God, they developed penicillin and other antibiotics that effectively targeted and wiped out life-threatening microbes and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
At the beginning of the 20th century, advances in microbiology led the medical profession to feeling triumphant about its increasing power to conquer the cause of disease. Then came the 1918 flu. Here was the chance for the new modern medicine to shine, to show the power of our burgeoning understanding of viruses and how to control them. And . . . our failure was colossal. Worldwide, 50 to 100 million people died from this influenza outbreak. It is the most devastating pandemic in world history.
In this failure, a new realization dawned on medical scientists. There is no technology, or even any conceivable technology, that can adequately protect the world against the next major worldwide plague. What we saw happening in 2014 with Ebola in Africa and since 2015 with the Zika virus now spreading from Brazil to other locations is but a small taste of what will one day arrive at our doorsteps. The microbes we are up against are armed with defenses they’ve developed through eons of time, and they can evolve much faster than any technology. Just a few changes in any of these viruses could unleash a worldwide sickness that we’d be practically defenseless against. Scientists who specialize in viruses tell us, it is not a matter of if, but of when.
Fortunately, the vast majority of microbes in our environment and in our bodies are friendly. In fact, they can and do help us fight the battle against the destructive pathogens we encounter. We should be very grateful that the majority of these ingenious microscopic creatures are on our side. These tiny soldiers stand guard to strengthen and enable our body to function properly, and they may very well be our best line of defense against the truly deadly pathogens of the world because they share the same genius that has evolved through eons of time. We should be doing all we can to nurture and protect these ancient friends.
Unfortunately, we are waging an all-out assault against these friendly microbes without even realizing it. So much of our modern world directly threatens these tiny creatures: the way we give birth, how we feed our newborns, where and how we live and clean our homes and bodies, the drugs and chemicals we use, our stress levels, and, of course, the food we eat.
We Can’t Win a War Against the World’s Microbes
We are not going to outsmart the germs of this world! They are evolving, and modern technology can’t keep up. Witness the emergence of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” which are now threatening to undo many of the miracles of modern science, like surgery and the treatment of preterm babies, which depend on effective treatments for bacterial infections. According to the CDC, “Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.” Experts only expect it to get worse. It is estimated that “without antibiotics, the rate of postoperative infection after a procedure like a hip replacement would be 40-50% and about one in three of those patients would die.”
And yet we continue to misuse antibiotics and other drugs and chemicals that both damage our microbiomes and create these superbugs. Most prominently, we allow the animal industry widespread use of precious antibiotics to fatten animals for human consumption. Currently, “More antibiotics are fed to farmed animals than are used to treat disease in human patients. . . . up to four times the amount used in human medicine.”. On top of this, the majority of infectious diseases throughout history are zoonotic, meaning they originate in animals and spread to humans largely through our desire to consume meat. No wonder the Lord tells us He is pleased if we don’t use meat, except in times of need (D&C 89:13).
The good news is there is so much we can do to address many seemingly unresolvable problems, just by changing the way we eat. By switching to a whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet, we can begin to—
- Restore our microbiomes to good health
- Prevent and reverse a wide spectrum of human disease
- Reduce the rate of human illnesses requiring antibiotics
- Eliminate the need to use antibiotics to grow animals for food
- Dramatically reduce the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs
- Dramatically reduce the spread of infectious disease
I’m not claiming a change in diet will resolve every human health problem, but if a whole food, plant-based diet can resolve at least 80% of them, that is a very good start indeed.
Will the Destroying Angel Pass Us By?
Without a serious change in diet, even modern medicine at its best is not able to fully protect us against many of the serious health threats we face today. In light of this reality, the Lord’s words in D&C 89 are particularly reassuring:
All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings . . . I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. (D&C 89:18, 21)
It will be many decades before science works out exactly how a healthy diet protects us from so many threats to our health. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait that long to know how we can protect ourselves and our children. The Lord gave us the key in D&C 89. It comes with His promise.
This, my friends, is good news. Let’s embrace it with joy and share it with as many who will receive it.
For Help Getting Started
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.”
 You can read my story here, “An Answer to a Question I Did Not Ask.”
 I highly recommend the work by whole food, plant-based (WFPB) experts that document the health benefits of a WFPB diet. See: “Whole Food, Plant-Based Resources.”
 I’ve chronicled the history of many of the LDS “Word of Wisdom pioneers” of the past in a series published in Meridian Magazine in 2014. See “Discovering the Word of Wisdom Pioneers.”
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: The Danger of Displacing Grain,” Meridian Magazine (July 21, 2014).
 Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015).
 See the series on Word of Wisdom Pioneers referenced in note 3 above. For one of the best examples, see: “A Heart Attack Proof Diet.”
 See the series on the human microbiome referenced at the beginning of this article.
 American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, “Autoimmune Disease Fact Sheet.”
 William Parker and Jeff Ollerton, “Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology Suggest Biome Reconstitution as a Necessary Approach Toward Dealing With Immune Disorders,” Evol Med Public Health (1): 89–103 (April 19, 2013).
 See the series on the human microbiome referenced at the beginning of this article.
 For the fascinating history of this pandemic, see John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (New York: Penguin, 2005).
 This is the chilling conclusion of John Barry’s book, cited in note 11 above.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Antibiotic / Antimicrobial Resistance,” CDC.gov (March 2, 2016).
 Michael Greger, “Antibiotic-Resistant ‘Superbugs’ in Meat,” NutritionFacts.org (March 10, 2016).
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Science (June 29, 2001); 356(1410): 957–977.
 According to the American Heart Association, “80 percent of heart disease and stroke can be prevented,” see: “Make the Effort to Prevent Heart Disease with Life’s Simple 7” (November 6, 2015). For a broader picture, see: Earl S. Ford, Manuela M Bergmann, Janine Kröger, Anja Schienkiewitz, Cornelia Weikert, and Heiner Boeing, “Healthy Living is the Best Revenge: Findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam Study,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 15 (2009): 1355-62. Also see the book cited in note 5 above.