In Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising insights from a whole food, plant-based perspective, author and LDS Earth Stewardship member Jane Birch explores the connection between the familiar text of Doctrine & Covenants section 89 and the type of plant-rich, unprocessed diet advocated by leading experts in nutrition and medicine. Birch recognizes and embraces the standard for “keeping the word of wisdom” set by church leaders—namely, avoidance of coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs and other habit-forming substances—but asserts that there is additional direction from the Lord in the word of wisdom that, if followed, could help us to be healthier and happier (pp. 19-20). Originally, after all, the entire revelation was given “not by commandment or constraint” but as a “word of wisdom” (D&C 89:2). Although we are now under command to abstain from certain harmful substances, the rest of the wise advice in the revelation—advice about what we should eat to maintain optimal health—still constitutes an important invitation. Since our dietary choices have consequences for the earth and for our bodies, such an invitation should be of interest to those motivated by principles of stewardship.
A whole food, plant-based diet is just what it sounds like: primarily unprocessed plant foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and seeds, and little or no meat, animal products, refined flours, sugars or oils. There’s extensive evidence that this diet helps prevent chronic and degenerative illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and the diet has grown in popularity with the publication of books like The China Study by nutritionist T. Colin Campbell, The Spectrum by physician Dean Ornish and films like Forks Over Knives. If a diet of only minimally-processed plant foods sounds extreme, you might consider that the far end of a spectrum—while the biggest health and environmental benefits might be achieved at the end of the spectrum, there are still significant benefits from moving towards a less-processed, mostly-plant approach.
Although Discovering the Word of Wisdom describes the basics of the diet and offers resources for learning more, the book’s purpose is not to detail the health findings but rather to explore the connection between a whole food, plant-based diet and the counsel in the word of wisdom. Such an approach offers a unique contribution to LDS literature. The book repeatedly references the teachings of latter-day prophets and modern scripture, including many of the same scriptures and statements from church leaders quoted in the Mormon Newsroom’s website on Environmental Stewardship and Conservation. These help us understand the spiritual implications of our dietary choices, and Birch’s careful explanations help apply scriptural teachings for present circumstances.
Chapter 2, “Flesh of Beasts,” for instance, helps us understand the role of animal foods as described in D&C 89:12-13. (The author has kindly made chapters two and eight available free to LDS Earth Stewardship blog readers. Click here for chapter two.) These verses advise us that meat should be eaten sparingly, and add that the Lord is pleased when we don’t eat meat at all when other food sources are available. While the threat of wintertime hunger was very real for the early saints who first received this instruction, Discovering the Word of Wisdom points out that these days the vast majority of us have reliable sources of plant foods year-round. Birch boldly advocates a completely meatless approach, suggesting that “maybe we should consider taking the Lord at His word” (p. 14).
Chapter 8, “Stewards of Our Bodies, the Earth, and Its Creatures” discusses how a whole food, plant-based diet is kind to both animals and the earth, and will be of special interest to LDS earth stewards. (For the full chapter, click here.) Birch takes pains to describe the heavy toll meat production extracts on the natural environment: the majority of cereal grains grown in the US are fed to livestock, not people; raising beef uses, pound per pound, nearly 200 times as much water as raising vegetables; the livestock industry is the single-largest human use of land resources; livestock production is responsible for more greenhouse gas pollution than all forms of transportation combined. She observes that instead of feeding so much of our crop to animals “we could instead directly consume the food … with much less cost to the environment and to our health” (p. 84). A whole food, plant-based diet, Birch concludes, “is not just healthy and humane; it is also sustainable. It helps us fulfill our responsibility as wise stewards of this beautiful world” (p. 86).
In addition to the thoughtfully-written text, the book includes stories from dozens of Mormons of all ages who have made the switch to a whole food, plant-based diet. The stories are inspiring, and especially encouraging to those interested in improving their own diets. My experience echoes many of these stories. Two years ago I developed a puzzling sleep disorder—no matter how long I slept, I was constantly sleepy, and struggled to stay awake. As you can imagine, this created significant challenges in my professional and personal life. Doctors prescribed ever-stronger doses of pharmaceutical stimulants, but I didn’t see very much improvement. And then last year I decided to try changing my diet. I thought I was eating a reasonably healthy diet before, but as I switched to mostly unprocessed plant foods, the improvement in my health was profound. These days I have no trouble staying awake. I’m not yet at the far end of the whole food, plant-based diet spectrum, but I can say without hesitation that for me, a diet based on unprocessed plant foods has brought health for body, mind and spirit. In a church culture where ham, cheesy potatoes and jello are standard fare at ward dinners, Discovering the Word of Wisdom is an important contribution to helping LDS members more fully embrace the principles of health outlined in modern-day scripture.