“The Do’s in the Word of Wisdom,” Ensign, Apr. 1977, 46
Every Primary child can recite what living the Word of Wisdom means: no tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol. Science continues to verify how wise we are to avoid these substances. But how often do we consider the positive aspects of the Word of Wisdom—the shoulds as well as the more widely known should nots? Let’s see what the Word of Wisdom tells us about vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains, as well as the promises associated with these practices.
The fact that the Word of Wisdom is a commandment is the reason we should obey it. However, it’s exciting to learn how continuing scientific discoveries verify the wisdom of the commandment, a commandment given when knowledge of nutrition was practically nonexistent.
One key to understanding some of the positive recommendations in the Word of Wisdom may be found by looking at dietary practices in America during the early 1800s, keeping in mind that vitamins were not even discovered until the twentieth century! It was hard to preserve fruits and vegetables for more than a few months, and they were usually eaten before spring. A physician wrote from California in 1854 that the worst enemy of early settlers was not weather, hardships of travel, or hostile Indians—but scurvy, a disease for which the cure had been known for one hundred years! The cure? Eating potatoes and other vegetables and citrus fruits, almost all of these being sources of at least some vitamin C! In 1832, a year before the Word of Wisdom was revealed, a cholera epidemic broke out along the eastern seaboard. Authorities, acting on their best knowledge, tragically banned the sale of fruit, and proclaimed salads and uncooked vegetables as dangerous. The New York City Board of Health published a list of foods to avoid (mainly fruits, vegetables, and seafoods), and allowed potatoes, beets, tomatoes, and onions only in moderation.
Along the frontiers, people relied heavily on meat as a staple in their diet because it was available and even plentiful, while crops might be scanty and uncertain. Meat was especially important in wintertime when other foods were less plentiful and when the cold weather helped preserve meat. People sometimes followed harmful dietary extremes because they had no accurate idea what they should eat. Thus, the Word of Wisdom was an island of truth in a sea of uncertainty.
“And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
“Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.” (D&C 89:10–11.)
What are herbs? A definition current in Joseph Smith’s day was “plants of which the leaves or stem and leaves, are used for food or medicine, or in some way for their scent or flavor.”1 In one sense, at least, herbs are simply edible plants. The same dictionary cites an 1833 usage of “fruits” as “vegetable products in general which are fit to be used by men and animals.” We usually group fruits and vegetables together because their nutritive value is similar.
What nutrients do these foods provide? Vitamin C, for one; and many of these foods also contain carotene, an orange pigment our bodies convert to vitamin A. In addition, fruits and vegetables supply some iron, calcium, and trace minerals, as well as small amounts of other vitamins.
Citrus fruits are the best sources of vitamin C, but potatoes, tomatoes, and some other vegetables are also good sources. (Potatoes helped cure scurvy among the miners who streamed west with the Gold Rush.) In addition, several popular drinks in the U.S. now are fortified with vitamin C, though usually not with the other vitamins available in fruits and vegetables. However, even if people don’t use citrus fruits or vitamin C fortified drinks, other fruits and vegetables may provide enough.
One caution: prolonged, high heat destroys vitamin C, so it’s best to cook vegetables at a moderate temperature for a short time.
Vitamin A, or carotene, is found primarily in deep orange fruits and vegetables, or in dark green, leafy vegetables where chlorophyll masks the orange color. Cantaloupes, papaya, yams, carrots, winter squash, broccoli, spinach, chard—all of these are rich in vitamin A. Not everyone likes these fruits and vegetables—how often do you make a salad out of spinach?—and we may need to pay attention to get enough vitamin A. Unfortunately, per capita consumption of these vegetables in the United States dropped from fourteen pounds in 1945 to four pounds in 1968.2 Recent interest in home gardens should help us reverse this trend.
What happens if you don’t get enough? Vitamin A deficiency is a worldwide problem. An extreme deficiency causes increased susceptibility to infections—in vitamin-A-deficient children, a case of measles often is fatal, and the eye infections associated with this deficiency at any age often result in irreversible blindness. The irony is that the blindness from vitamin A deficiency is totally preventable by eating the leafy greens rich in this nutrient that grow in every region of the world. Iron-deficiency anemia is another widespread nutritional problem. Although the body does not absorb iron from plants as efficiently as iron from meat, many of us could increase our iron intake by eating many of those same dark green, leafy vegetables.
The Lord instructs us to use these foods “in the season thereof,” when they are at their peak nutritionally and in flavor, texture, and color. With our increased knowledge, we can extend the “season” to last throughout the entire year by canning, drying, freezing, and cold temperature storage, as well as pickling, salting, and preserving. Of course, any kind of processing, including cooking, causes an initial decline in nutritional value of about 20 percent, although this amount varies some depending on the nutrient and cooking conditions. After the initial drop due to processing, nutritional value and appeal continue to decline slowly, depending on storage conditions. (Don’t conclude that we should eat everything raw: cooking helps us digest and absorb some nutrients; it makes some foods palatable and others safe to eat!)
Herbs also add variety to our meals through spices such as onions, garlic, peppers, sage, parsley, bay leaves, etc. Some herbs have medicinal properties as well. However, one should use extreme care in treating illnesses with herbs, since most have not been subjected to the careful testing required for other drugs and some contain powerful chemicals. Some people enjoy herbal teas, but even these should not replace more nutritious drinks in the diet. Always tell your physician if you are taking any herbal teas and know what the tea contains if possible. Recently an association has been identified between herbal teas and cancer of the esophagus, but further research is needed.3 In Utah, in the summer of 1976, three deaths were attributed to the overuse of herbs.4 When dealing with severe or chronic illnesses, be especially wary of herbal treatments or remedies that have not been proven effective through scientific studies. Priesthood blessings and competent medical care, not home remedies, should be obtained for treating serious disease.
But if we focus only on the nutritional and medicinal values of fruits, herbs, and vegetables we miss an important point. Fruits and vegetables are to be used with thanksgiving—in other words, for our enjoyment! Have you ever heard comments like: “Eat your peas now, then you can have dessert” or “You can go out and play after you finish your carrots.” Somehow statements like these associate vegetables with punishments, not with pleasure! I really enjoy Doctrine and Covenants 59:16–20, [D&C 59:16–20] especially verses 18 and 19, where the Lord emphasizes:
“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.”
It’s nice to know that between the extremes of eating-as-duty and eating-as-self-indulgence lies the Lord’s view—that eating is a pleasant necessity and an occasion for joy and thanksgiving.
The second general area for positive action deals with animals and meat:
“Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
“And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” (D&C 89:12–13.)
We realize that the Word of Wisdom does not advocate total vegetarianism when we read another scripture:
“And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God;
“For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” (D&C 49:18–19; see also 1 Tim. 4:1–3.)
What is meat’s nutritional value? It contains good quality protein and iron. The general nutritional composition of eggs is enough like meat that they are considered a “meat alternate.” Milk and cheeses are also high in protein, but contain calcium instead of iron. Dried peas and beans such as pigeon peas, navy beans, and soybeans contain moderate to high quality protein as well as some iron, so these may be used as meat alternates.
Grains contain less protein than most of these other foods; it’s also of poorer quality. However, grain protein contributes to the day’s total, especially when eaten with meat or meat alternates. Vegetables contain only small amounts of protein, and fruits practically none at all. Thus a diet which relies totally on grains, fruits, and vegetables usually means protein deficiency.
In addition to protein, meats provide us with several of the vitamins in the vitamin B group: thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine. One member of this group, vitamin B12, is found only in meat, milk, cheese, and eggs; thus strict vegetarians must take a vitamin B12 supplement to avoid eventual irreversible damage to their spinal cord. Meats also contribute to a full feeling after a meal, because they contain some fat, which stays in our stomach longer than the other nutrients.
However, we are admonished to use meat sparingly. This caution is certainly understandable considering how heavily nineteenth-century Americans relied on meat when the Word of Wisdom was given. But even in our day of more balanced diets, we are aware of some problems when the meat intake is very high, as advocated by some dieters or by athletes who do not understand muscle physiology.
When meat makes up the main part of our food intake, we crowd out other foods and, consequently, their nutrients. In a recent extreme example, a widower had milk for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, and steak for dinner. He disliked onions and other vegetables, thought potatoes were “fattening,” and was not interested in fruit. He developed scurvy!5
Meats are also sources of fat, primarily saturated fat, and cholesterol. People who need to cut down their total calories may need to cut down on the total amount of fat in their diet. Individuals who have some of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease may need to limit their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol as well as total fat and calories. Table 1 shows the fat and cholesterol content of some foods, but individual recommendations for intake vary.
Total Fat (Grams)
Broiled pork chop
Cooked dry beans
Hard cooked eggs
Some researchers believe that a diet high in meat is linked with a higher incidence of colon cancer and diverticular disease. (Diverticula are small pockets on the large intestine which may become inflamed.) However, since it’s almost impossible to have a high meat diet without having a high fat and low fiber intake as well, it’s not clear what actually causes the intestinal problems. In Utah, where per capita beef consumption is slightly higher than the national average, the incidence of cancer of the colon still is less than the incidence among Seventh Day Adventists, even though many of the latter group practice a vegetarian diet.7 Thus, the relationship between a high meat diet and cancer needs further investigation.
Another problem more clearly associated with a high meat (or a high protein) diet is the extra work placed on the kidneys. Protein not needed for building or repairing body tissue is broken down; part of the molecule is used for energy or stored as fat while the other part of the molecule is excreted as waste in urine.
Protein in the diet also influences calcium retention. Our teeth and bones need calcium throughout life, but the body doesn’t retain it well when the protein intake is considerably higher than necessary. Reducing meat intake might actually benefit those with limited calcium intake, although of course they’d need to be sure that their protein intake is still adequate.
How much do we actually need? The National Research Council estimates individuals need .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.8 Thus a 70 kilogram man (150 pounds) needs approximately 54 grams of protein daily. Table 2 shows a combination of foods this man could eat to meet his protein needs. It is easy to make substitutions; for more detailed information on protein in foods consult a table of food values. In most states and countries a publication listing food values is available from government agencies.
Food and Amount
3 oz. meat (fish, poultry, etc.)
1 8 oz. glass of milk
1 cup cooked dry beans (pinto, navy, etc.)
4 slices of bread
1 oz. cheddar cheese
* High quality protein
High-quality protein should provide approximately one-third to one-half of the recommended intake. Thus, someone could cut down on meat and milk by increasing consumption of beans, nuts, and cereal products. In making such substitutions, however, we should remember that meats are some of the best sources of iron, and that milk and cheeses are the best sources of calcium in the typical Western diet.
We are told in Doctrine and Covenants 89:12–13 [D&C 89:12–13] that the use of meats is more appropriate during times of winter, cold, or famine. Why? We’re not certain. Our present knowledge about the body’s protein requirement suggests that we need the same amount of protein throughout the year, although we can certainly emphasize different sources in different seasons. In this area as in others, there’s definitely room for additional research.
The third set of positive recommendations deals with grains:
“All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;
“All these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.
“All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—
“Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.” (D&C 89:14–17.)
Sometimes we focus on the phrase “wheat for man” without realizing that the Lord twice describes “all grain” as for our use. Wheat does not grow well in all parts of the world, and there are good alternate grains in most climates. Each grain provides a slightly different combination of nutrients (see Table 3), but they are similar enough that we can group them together to include them regularly in our diet.
Vitamin A (I.U.)
Vitamin C (I.U.)
Whole grain hard wheat
White enriched rice
Whole grain rye
Since grain has less protein—and it’s lower quality than the protein in meat, eggs, milk, cheese, dried beans, and dried peas—we get the most out of grain if we combine it with high-quality protein. Nonetheless, grains do add significant protein, as well as thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and iron, although the iron in grains is not as readily absorbed as the iron in meat. Grains are not good sources of calcium or vitamins A and C.
Grains, like fruits and vegetables, contain fiber that helps the gastro-intestinal tract function normally and that may help prevent colon cancer, diverticular disease, and other intestinal problems. However, these relationships have only been observed as statistical correlations; cause and effect connections have not yet been proved.
Whole grains provide more trace minerals such as magnesium and zinc than do refined flours. This difference may be significant if most of your bread and cereal products come from refined flours; but if your diet includes a wide variety of nutritious foods, occasionally eating refined breads and pastas will not cause you to miss important trace minerals.
In spite of the high nutritional benefits of grains, there are some dangers in eating grains excessively. One problem is that too much whole grain can irritate the intestinal tract and cause discomfort and diarrhea in some individuals. Another is that grains are not a very concentrated source of calories, and young children especially cannot eat enough grains to supply all of their energy needs. Also, since grain protein is lower quality, and not as concentrated as animal protein, it is possible to develop a deficiency. Severe protein-calorie malnutrition still occurs in many areas where children are weaned from mother’s milk to grain products.
Another problem occurs when babies are given ground whole-wheat cereal as one of their first solid foods. Diarrhea usually occurs, and interferes with absorption of all nutrients. Fortified rice or barley cereals work better as a baby’s first solid food, since they’re the least allergenic of the cereal grains.
But after this catalogue of potential problems, let me quickly add that grains and grain products are some of the best buys available, in addition to their great nutritional value. They are, and should be, the “staff of life,” just as the Lord counseled us in the Word of Wisdom.
The Word of Wisdom counsels us to choose our diets with care. Notice how often it uses words or phrases like “wisdom,” “adapted to the capacity of the weak,” “used with judgment and skill,” “used with prudence and thanksgiving,” “used sparingly.” One obvious form of immoderation is overeating with its well-known dangers: increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, gout.
But there are other, less obvious, dangers. Those who eat one type of food exclusively deprive themselves not only of needed nutrients but of pleasure and appreciation for the Lord’s abundance. We occasionally see severe malnutrition among Latter-day Saints who, in misguided efforts to follow the Word of Wisdom, reject whole groups of food or fast for prolonged periods. The Word of Wisdom is not a punishment or a restriction; it is a guide to the foods that will help us be healthy.
Some individuals rely heavily on so-called “super foods,” which they believe will supply all needed nutrients. But no food so far known, not even mother’s milk, adequately supplies all of the nutrients we need! It is the total combination of foods that we eat that is important—and a good combination is the Word of Wisdom’s recommended list: grains, vegetables and fruits, and meat sparingly.
Just as the excessive use of grains and meats is dangerous, so is taking too many vitamins, minerals, or other food supplements. Iron and vitamins A and D, especially, are harmful in large dosages.9 First, these supplements are sometimes so expensive that by buying them you deprive yourself of the foods that could have supplied the nutrients in the first place. Second, excesses may be poisonous. Large dosages of vitamin C have been associated with kidney stones and even with miscarriage. In fact, the body may not be able to use any nutrient normally if it comes in too large a dose. In contrast, the body rarely gets a poisonous amount of these nutrients when people get their nutrients from a variety of foods.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has stated that “the Word of Wisdom is not the gospel, and the gospel is not the Word of Wisdom.”10 Extremism in “obeying” the Word of Wisdom, like extremism in any aspect of the gospel, can distort our perspective and lead us away from our goal of eternal salvation.
Sometimes, because the effects of our eating habits are not immediately apparent, we wonder if what we eat really does make any difference. All of us probably know someone who never eats vegetables and yet is energetic, vivacious, and successful. What then are the consequences of our nutritional patterns?
First, if a person simply does not have enough food, he starves. During starvation, he has so little energy that he simply cannot “run and not be weary.” Mental outlook also changes; the overriding compulsion is to find food, not “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge.”
Second, a pregnant mother’s severe malnutrition or severely inadequate nourishment during a baby’s first few months of life can slow or stunt the child’s mental development. The malnourished child is also listless and apathetic, so he interacts less, reducing the stimulation of his mind even more. This hard-to-break cycle still occurs in many parts of the world: a real tragedy when the solution often lies in simply using the foods that the Lord has provided in each region of the world. As he promised, “The earth is full, and there is enough and to spare.” (D&C 104:17.)
For most of us, our diets are not extreme enough for us to see such dramatic consequences of poor nutrition because heredity, environment, attitudes, and health care also influence our health. Nevertheless, those who are well nourished do “receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones.” They will be alert to finding “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” They will have the energy and endurance to “run and not be weary,” and to “walk and not faint.” And the greatest promise, one that we may see fulfilled in ways we cannot yet imagine, is: “And 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.)