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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.
Did God make a mistake when He made our bodies? Why do we eat more than is good for our health and our waistlines? Why can’t we feel satisfied with a reasonable portion of food? Why is it so hard to cut back on calories over the long-term?
We do know that it is extremely hard for humans to permanently cut back on their calories. We often hear that 95% of dieters gain the weight back between 1–5 years. While that number is likely too high, the sad fact is that many people have lost the same pounds over and over again.
Did God give us a hunger drive that cannot be trusted? Is physical hunger just a test of our discipline and will power? Is it simply our fault for not bridling our appetites?
The answer, surprisingly, is found in the Word of Wisdom. When we eat the foods the Lord ordained for us, our natural hunger drive works perfectly and helps us control our appetite. When we eat only wholesome foods, we can trust our body to let us know how much to eat, and it will guide us to exactly the right amount of food so that we (1) do not go hungry; (2) are at the proper weight; and (3) can enjoy the maximum health possible.
Our Hunger Drive is Not the Problem
A primary reason for our sojourn in mortality is to receive the physical body our Father designed for us. While at BYU, Jeffrey R. Holland taught us that our body is “the great prize of mortal life.” Our body is essential both for experiencing mortality and to our eternal salvation, to our ability to live the type of life our Father and our Savior live. Without a body, we “cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:34). Our bodies are priceless gifts. We are their stewards.
An essential part of having a mortal body is the necessity of feeding it enough calories for survival and procreation. To ensure that we get enough calories, our Father blessed our body with a hunger drive that motivates us to seek the food our bodies need. Seen in this light, it is obvious that our God-given hunger drive is critical to the Plan of Happiness.
Our hunger drive is a primarily biological mechanism carefully controlled by a complex internal system that is mostly outside of our conscious control. The reason most fad diets fail is that they try to circumvent our God-given hunger drive. They do this by either artificially changing the intensity of the hunger we feel or by getting us to eat fewer calories than we desire. We humans are able to do this in the short-run because we are also motivated by factors beyond biological hunger. One other important factor is our appetite, which is a primarily psychological drive influenced by a variety of socio-cultural-culinary factors, along with the use of our agency.
Historically, humans who have simply followed their God-given hunger drive have had no problem discerning exactly how much food they should consume. The complex biological mechanisms in our beautifully created bodies are precisely designed to help us eat the right amount of food (on average) each and every day without any conscious calculations on our part. For example, eating stimulates stretch receptors (nerves in our gastrointestinal tissues) that can measure the volume of food we’ve consumed. Nutrient receptors measure how calorically dense the food is. These, and other biological mechanisms, are designed to tell us when we need more food and when we have had enough.
In generations past, even our ancestors who had access to plenty of food were, in general, not overweight. They managed to do this without a scrap of understanding about what a calorie is or how much food was “correct” to eat. The same is true for animals. Even animals with access to huge food resources do not consistently overeat, and it is not because they are good at counting carbs or weighing themselves! Unlike pets fed by humans, we don’t find obese animals living in the wild.
To summarize: our God-given hunger drive is designed to unerringly help us consume exactly the right number of calories we need to maintain proper weight, which is essential to good health.
Why Do We Gain Weight?
If our bodies are designed so precisely, why do we gain weight? Why do the statistics recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that obesity rates are still rising in America and that more Americans are now more overweight than ever before?
There are two basic reasons. First, our hunger drive is not designed to handle the rich, calorically dense foods that are common in the modern diet. Second, these same rich, calorically dense foods stimulate our appetite and encourage us to over-consume. In other words, just as Dr. John McDougall likes to remind us, “It’s the food!” No wonder the Lord focuses on food in the Word of Wisdom.
Tricking Our Hunger Drive
Our bodies are designed to function in the natural food environment that we as humans have lived in since the days of Adam and Eve. Except for the few who were rich or royal, the diet of our ancestors was a diet of necessity. They ate the whole natural foods that came from the earth, mostly plant-based with very small additions of animal foods, primarily during special occasions. They didn’t have the choice to go to Chuck-A-Rama or Chuck E. Cheese.
It is relatively recently in human history when we got the idea to process the God-given nutrients out of foods and replace them with added fat, sugar, and salt. Enter mac ‘n cheese, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, white bread, and BBQ bacon cheeseburger pizza. These are not the foods our bodies were designed to run on. Given these foods, the natural biological mechanisms in our body do not work properly.
Why aren’t our biological triggers working in the modern world? One reason is that the foods we eat are so unnatural that our bodies have not adapted to them. The fiber and water that create bulk and satiety have been taken out. Concentrated, calorie-rich fat and sugar have been added. We also eat many more animal foods, which are devoid of fiber and very high in fat. Consequently, our foods are unnaturally calorically dense: they pack a large number of calories in a small amount of space. Under these circumstances, the biological mechanisms in our bodies are not able to accurately detect exactly how much food and how many calories we’ve eaten. So, we continue to consume calories beyond the point that is good for us.
Tricking Our Appetites
We also over-consume because these same foods unnaturally stimulate our appetites. Our appetite is different from our hunger drive. As we all know, even if we are stuffed silly, we can all manage to happily consume a delectable dessert that has suddenly appeared on the table. We don’t consume it because we are “hungry” but because our appetite is stimulated. Our appetites are influence by a number of socio-cultural-culinary factors, including: childhood experiences; our need for emotional comfort; social influences; food flavor, texture, and appearance; convenience, availability, variety, and serving size; marketing; and our beliefs about food and nutrition.
The food industry knows exactly how to manufacture and package food so as to stimulate our appetites to the maximum amount possible. They know that the more appetizing their foods look, smell, sound, and taste, the more we will consume, regardless of whether we need the calories. They use this successfully to the profit of their bank statements and to the demise of our health.
While our appetites are an important factor, note that in the absence of high calorie, rich foods, these factors were not strong enough to cause widespread obesity among humans. It is only in the face of high calorie dense, rich modern foods that these factors begin to play an important role in our food consumption, weight, and health.
Why Fad Diets Don’t Work
Fad diets are appealing because they promise to help us lose weight and still allow us to eat the unhealthy food we want to eat. They do this by trying to trick our bodies into consuming fewer calories than we normally would consume. Rather than working with our God-given hunger drive, fad diets try to help us lose weight through gimmicks that cannot be sustained in the long-term. The reason they can’t be sustained over the long-term is partly psychological and partly biological.
Many fad diets work short-term through the placebo effect, a psychological phenomenon with biological impact. It is well known that it is difficult to create a drug that works better than a sugar pill (a placebo). That is because the mind has such a tremendous impact on our bodies that even the idea that we are getting something useful or that the intervention has a function actually stimulates real results in our bodies. That same is true for the promises of fad diets. They offer the equivalent of a “sugar pill” that promises to reduce our appetite or make us lose fat. Just the promise itself is enough to stimulate weight loss . . . at least in the short-term. An appetite suppressor that truly suppresses our appetite invariably ends up being a substance that is harmful to our bodies, like cigarette smoking, fen-phen, and a host of drugs, some of which are very similar to amphetamine (commonly known as speed).
Another trick used by fad diets is to figure out a way to get us to eat less food than we desire. With the promise of quick or steady weight loss, they may get us to exert the will power necessary to eat a diet dramatically lower in calories. There are endless ways to do this. Examples include the Grapefruit Diet, the Beverly Hills Diet, the Half-Diet Diet, and most meal replacement products.
Other diets, like Weight Watchers, are much more moderate and are not necessarily “fad diets,” but because they leave unhealthy foods in the diet, dieters must carefully measure and limit the quantity of food consumed to make the diet work. They must constantly be vigilant. They can’t rely on their own hunger drive to regulate consumption because, as I’ve already explained, this God-given mechanism only works efficiently when we are consuming the wholesome foods ordained for our health.
When Fad Diets Fail
Fad diets can work in the short-term, but they are not built for the long run. They work against our God-given biology and not with it. Sooner or later, the typical dieter begins to chow down on more calorie dense foods. This leads to over-consumption, and the cycle of weight gain and weight loss starts over.
Fad diets are not natural. None of our trim ancestors and no wild animals maintained a healthy weight by counting calories, points, or carbs. Nor did they get themselves to lose weight by just eating half of the food they normally would eat. None of this works in the long-run because try as we might, we can’t do an end run around the God-given wisdom of our bodies. We can either eat the wholesome foods that are proper for fueling our bodies or we can engage in a life-long struggle with unhealthy foods.
The Role of Discipline
Rather than fight our God-given hunger drive, we need to work with it. This does take discipline, at least at first before it becomes a habit. Fortunately, as disciples of Christ, we know how to be disciplined. Applying this to our food choices is another way we can honor the bodies our Father has given us and be good stewards of them. By working with our body instead of against it, we can draw on the ancient power and eternal wisdom naturally inherent in our bodies. This will give us strength beyond anything a fad diet can do for us.
We can bridle our appetites by choosing to eat the foods the Lord ordained for us. We train our appetites to crave wholesome foods when we only put wholesome foods into our mouths. At first, the foods may taste unnatural or bland. That is because we are used to unnaturally rich and artificially stimulating foods. But the more we eat wholesome foods, the more our taste buds change. Soon, all the old taste buds have died out, and only the new taste buds that relish wholesome foods remain. The Word of Wisdom way allows us to eat satisfying, delicious foods and still lose weight while not going hungry. This is true freedom.
Freedom from Fad Diets
Each week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I feature a new story of a Latter-day Saint who has embraced the Word of Wisdom way to health. Most people who share their stories have a long history of yo-yo dieting (losing and then regaining the same pounds, or more, through years of fad diets). It is impossible to communicate the amount and intensity of torture and self-criticism these experiences have induced. It is a hard and humbling way to live, but these stories all end in hope as each dieter discovers the wisdom the Lord has blessed us with in D&C 89. Darkness turns to light as they discover that by switching to the wholesome plant foods the Lord has given us, they can satisfy their hunger drive, lose excess weight, and regain health.
Next week in Meridian Magazine, I plan to share several of these stories. Here is just one:
Like so many others, Marla Radeke’s life was ruled by “many years of fad diets, exercise binges, and yo-yo dieting.” Nothing worked for permanent weight loss, not even intense exercise, not even purchasing a gym and becoming a leader in fitness training. It was only when she discovered the Word of Wisdom way to health that the years of yo-yo dieting came to an end. “It was the missing piece!” she recalls, “I was looking for something that I could do the rest of my life – and it had been in front of me all along. I could, and I would, learn and follow the Word of Wisdom to the best of my understanding.”
Listen to Marla’s testimony as she describes what it feels like to work with her body instead of against it to find the answer to real, permanent, healthy weight loss:
After a lifetime of struggling with food, I was finally enjoying what I ate, and feeling great. I was amazed to have so much energy throughout the day, to wake up feeling refreshed and rested, and to not suffer from the headaches, mood swings, and cravings that I often had before. The weight literally melted off. . . . I cannot believe the health benefits I have found in doing so. I love to eat! . . . I have found my happy place.
You can read Marla Radeke’s full story here: “The weight literally melted off.”
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.”
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” BYU Devotional Address given on January 12, 1988.
 Gordon M. Wardlaw and Anne M. Smith, Contemporary Nutrition, 6th ed. updated (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007).
 For a very useful description of how our body is designed to help us eat the correct amount of food and how modern foods circumvent this process, see this excellent book: Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer, The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness (Summertown, TN: Healthy Living, 2003).
| U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Obesity Rates Rising Among Women,” MedlinePlus (June 7, 2016).|
 Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (New York: Random House, 2013) & David A. Kessler, Your Food Is Fooling You: How Your Brain Is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat, and Salt (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012).
 Some diets combine a placebo effect with fewer calories, like the popular use of the hormone hCG. The popular lo-carb diets can induce a quick loss of water weight and protein tissue. Restricting carbs can also act as a natural appetite suppressor as the body is tricked into thinking it must be in a starvation situation, but subverting our God-given biological mechanisms in this way also leads to numerous negative health consequences.
 Damien G. Finniss, et al., “Biological, Clinical, and Ethical Advances of Placebo Effects,” Lancet 375 (2010): 686–695, 687.