The Mormon Word of Wisdom: An 1833 Guide to a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet

Jane Birch, PhD | 06/02/14

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The Mormon Word of Wisdom: An 1833 Guide to a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet by Jane Birch, PhD

The full history of the whole food, plant-based (WFPB) revolution has yet to be written, and I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it. Among the amazing WFPB pioneers sure to be featured are several born in the early 20th century, including Walter Kempner (the "Rice Diet"), Roy Swank (very low fat diet to treat MS patients), and Nathan Pritikin (the Pritikin Longevity Center). Of course these pioneers built on the work of scientists born in the late 19th-century like Russell Chittenden, whose research showed humans do not need nearly as much protein as previously thought, and William Rose, whose study of essential amino acids helped confirm that plant foods contain all that is required for health.

Most people may be surprised to learn about an earlier WFPB pioneer of sorts, born in the early 19th-century: the Mormon founder Joseph Smith. In 1833, acting as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than as a scientist, Joseph Smith published dietary guidelines known as the "Word of Wisdom." The most well-known guidelines were prohibitions against consuming alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. In addition, the Word of Wisdom summarized the type of diet that is, as Smith put it, "ordained of God." It consists of three principles, as stated in Mormon scripture, Doctrine and Covenants Section 89:

1. All wholesome plants "in the season thereof" are ordained for our "constitution, nature, and use," and should be used with "prudence and thanksgiving."

2. Animal flesh is ordained for human use, but it should be eaten sparingly, and only in times of need: winter, cold, famine or "excess of hunger."

3. All grain is good and is ordained to be the "staff of life."

Sound familiar? While none of these ideas, taken individually, was absolutely original in 1833, the combination was unique and, more unusual, has stood the test of time. In fact, the similarities between these simple guidelines and the McDougall "Starch Solution" are striking.

The Word of Wisdom has been central to the identity of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the 19th century. Although Mormons are well known for abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, the rest of their dietary code has not been as widely preached or practiced. So, while the Mormon people enjoy multiple health advantages by abstaining from addictive stimulants, they have not yet reaped as many benefits as they could by adhering to the rest of their Word of Wisdom health code.

I was a typical Mormon in this regard for most of my life. I loved the Word of Wisdom and felt it protected me from potentially damaging substances like alcohol and tobacco. But like most Mormons, I basically ignored the rest of the wise counsel. My diet was indistinguishable from that of most Mormons, which is pretty much indistinguishable from the general American population-- in other words, SAD (Standard American Diet).

That all changed one day but NOT because I suddenly decided to examine the Word of Wisdom more seriously (I had already studied it dozens of times to that point in my life). My perspective changed because I stumbled on the "heart-attack proof" diet, promoted by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, as featured by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN.

Only after I understood the power of a WFPB diet to prevent and reverse chronic illness and nourish vibrant health did I return to the Word of Wisdom, this time with a fresh perspective. There, right in front of me, were the basic principles of a WFPB diet. They'd been hidden (as it were) in plain sight in an 1833 document I had read numerous times since my youth! The very day I made this connection, I stopped eating all animal foods, along with all unwholesome plant foods. I felt joy giving them up, and I haven't deviated from a WFPB/Word of Wisdom diet since.

My journey since making this discovery has been nothing short of miraculous. I love the way my body feels now that I am fueling it well! I love the weight loss! I love how every single health problem I had previously has disappeared! I also enjoy the adventure of sharing the blessings of eating this way with friends and family. Since that day, I have shared my "discovery" of the Word of Wisdom with hundreds of other Latter-day Saints and witnessed the light turn on for many of them, as well. When I introduce a WFPB diet to Mormons, I don't even need to mention the Word of Wisdom; they get the connection.

In late 2013, I published a book detailing my experience: Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (see the first two chapters of the book here). In the course of writing this book, I solicited stories from other Latter-day Saints who are "converts" to a WFPB diet. As the stories poured in, I began to see that the WFPB way of life has begun, slowly but surely, to impact the Mormon community. I feel great joy as I witness what is happening as Mormons "wake up" to the Word of Wisdom. I am now featuring their stories on a website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.

Mormons are known for being passionate missionaries for their cause, but this time it has been non-Mormon WFPB leaders playing the role of "missionary" to teach Latter-day Saints. In the place of missionary literature like the Book of Mormon, books like The China Study are playing a major role in the conversion of many Mormons to what, after all, has been part of their history and tradition since 1833.


Author Bio

Jane Birch, PhD, is author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective, a book which explores the Mormon health code, the "Word of Wisdom," in light of what is known about the most healthy plant-based diet. She serves as Assistant Director for Faculty Development at the Brigham Young University Faculty Center where she enjoys helping faculty members become their best. Contact Jane on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.


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