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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.

In “Three Foods Ordained by God,” I introduced the three foods the Lord ordained for our use:

  • Wholesome herbs (plant foods) and fruit (D&C 89:10–11)
  • Animal flesh (D&C 89:12–13)
  • Grain (D&C 89:14–17)

I’ve explored the first two foods in “The Wholesome Herbs Ordained by God” and “Animal Flesh is Ordained by God.” In both articles, I point out that the Word of Wisdom often raises as many questions as it answers. The counsel is not black and white. Much is left to us to explore. As Elder David A. Bednar instructs, the Lord teaches us doctrines and principles, but we are responsible for figuring out how to apply this counsel in our lives.[1] This protects and encourages our use of agency and the development of our ability to think for ourselves and to receive inspiration directly from God.

Because the Word of Wisdom does not specially address fish, and the Church has not taken an official stand on it, none of us can claim to know the Word of Wisdom position on fish. We can study the topic via scriptures, science, logic, and prayer, but we each have the privilege of making up our own minds on the topic. I offer the following discussion in the spirit of exploration.

“Beasts and . . . the Fowls of the Air” (D&C 89:12)

In D&C 89:12, the Lord tells us “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man.” In verses 14–15, the Lord adds “wild animals” to the list of creatures that may be used when appropriate. My question is this: Is this is an exhaustive list of all the animal foods the Lord asks us to use sparingly or is this a representative sample?

The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines beast as, “Any four footed animal, which may be used for labor, food or sport; distinguished from fowls, insects, fishes and man.”[2] The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes beasts from “birds, reptiles, fishes, insects, etc.”[3]

The Lord mentions an appropriate use for beasts and fowls and wild animals, but what about reptiles, insects, and fish? Most of us have no desire to consume insects or reptiles, but many of us love fish. Based on Section 89, should fish also be used sparingly and preferably only in times of winter, cold, and famine as the Lord counsels we use other animal flesh, or does the lack of mention of fish indicate they can be used in abundance, at any time?

Note: In this article, I’ll focus on fish, but I’ll assume this discussion also applies to the many other edible creatures not specifically mentioned in Section 89. This includes crustacea (like crab, lobster, and shrimp) and molluscs (like clams, scallops, and oyster). It also includes other living things not commonly eaten in the Western world, but that are eaten in other countries, like insects, reptiles, worms, and other interesting critters.

Possible Interpretation #1: A Hearty Endorsement of Fish

Some would suggest that the Lord does not mention fish because, unlike other animal foods, fish is much healthier for us. We do know that during His mortal life Jesus Christ ate fish and that He multiplied the fish (along with bread) for thousands who came to hear His message. He also helped His disciples to miraculously catch fish. Nowhere in scripture is fish condemned. On the contrary, throughout most of scripture, it appears to be a natural and positive part of the human diet.

Today we also have the benefit of scientific studies to help inform us. Many studies show that red meat and chicken are both highly correlated with chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, but there are studies showing that fish is less harmful, even health-promoting.[4] We do know fish contains many important nutrients:

Fish is a low-fat high quality protein. Fish is filled with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins such as D and B2 (riboflavin). Fish is rich in calcium and phosphorus and a great source of minerals, such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium.[5]

Of all the nutrients in fish, experts like to emphasize one in particular: omega-3 fatty acids. According to the American Heart Association:

Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people, and those at high risk of — or who have — cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden death. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels, slow growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lower blood pressure (slightly).[6]

Many governmental and other health agencies recommend 1–2 servings of fish a week on the basis that fish consumption is thought to provide benefits such as heart health, brain development, better vision, an improved immune system, and even less depression.

Does the fact that the Lord does not specifically include fish in His admonition to eat meat sparingly mean the Word of Wisdom is a hearty endorsement of fish? If this is correct, perhaps we should be enjoying fish at every meal.

Possible Interpretation #2: Beasts and Fowls as Examples of a Principle

A second possible interpretation of the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89:12–13 draws from the precedent set in verses 5–9. As I discussed in “Rethinking Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea,” the four prohibited substances are by no means exhaustive. They are given as examples of a broader principle we should apply to many other substances that are similarly harmful (e.g. cocaine and marijuana). Is it possible that beasts and fowls are mentioned as examples of a broader principle we should also apply?

From a scientific point of view, all animal flesh has a similar nutritional profile. Whether the flesh is the muscle of a cow, chicken, or fish, all muscles are designed for the same function: to enable living creatures to move. So it is not surprising that no matter the creature, the muscle we call meat is relatively similar, including a similar ratio of fat and protein and lack of carbohydrates. While the micronutrients vary between species, as they do subspecies, when compared to the nutrient profile of plants, all animal flesh is strikingly similar. Fish is not the same as beef or chicken, but compared to beets and chickpeas, it is the same family of foods.

And in fact, dairy and eggs also belong to this same family of foods because they too have a relatively similar nutritional profile compared to plant foods. Whether meat, fish, dairy, or eggs, these are all foods high in protein and fats, largely devoid of carbohydrates, high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and relatively low in phytonutrients (phyto means plants) and other important micronutrients. As a consequence, it is not surprisingly that there is good scientific evidence that shows that fish consumption can contribute to major chronic diseases:

  • Fish consumption can contribute to heart disease [7]
  • Fish consumption can increase the rate of diabetes [8]
  • Consuming fish can increase the risk of cancer [9]

Like all the important nutrients found in fish, the essential omega-3 fats that are so valued are actually created by plants. Omega-3 fats and other nutrients are only in fish because fish eat the plants. This explains why studies show little difference between the blood levels of omega-3 EPA and DHA in fish eaters versus vegetarians or even vegans.[10]

The most serious health risks of consuming fish, however, may not be their natural qualities but rather widespread environmental pollutants routinely found in them. These include mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), DDT, flame retardants, coolants, and dioxins. In fact, fish is so commonly polluted that governmental and other health agencies have to routinely list long, somewhat complicated rules to help consumers avoid the most harmful of the contaminants. (For just one example, see The Washington State Department of Health, “Reduce Exposure to Contaminants in Fish.”) These contaminants can have very serious health consequences, especially for babies in utero and young children, but also for adults as well.[11]

Many health organizations recommend limited quantities of fish because the good nutrients in fish come packaged with so much that is less than ideal. Since all the nutrients in fish are easily found in plant foods, without the negative baggage, plant-based advocates recommend we get these nutrients from plant foods instead.[12]

It is likely that the risks of eating fish often outweigh the benefits, just as the risks of eating beasts and fowls often outweigh the benefits. If this is true, beasts and fowls are possibly used in the Word of Wisdom as examples of a general principle that we should apply to similar foods, like fish (just as alcohol and tobacco express a principle we should apply to other harmful substances, like cocaine). Perhaps the broader principle given us in D&C 89:12–13 suggests that fish should also be used sparingly and preferably only in times of winter, cold, and famine.

Possible Interpretation #3: Fish is Not Ordained for the Last Days

A third possible interpretation of the role of fish in the Word of Wisdom is that the Lord ordained the specific list of foods included in Section 89 and intentionally left out other foods. Wholesome plant foods are in. Grains are in. The flesh of beasts and fowls of the air are in. But no mention is made of fish (or dairy or eggs). These foods are not the herbs, fruits, or grain ordained of God. Nor are they are the four-legged beasts or fowls of the air ordained of God. So, according to this interpretation, fish is apparently not ordained of God for our use in these the last days (even if it was fine to use in previous ages where the food situation was quite different).

What evidence is there for this interpretation beyond the health risks stated above? Perhaps most obviously, it is not possible for everyone in the world to regularly consume fish simply because the world cannot produce enough fish.[13] A careful four-year study published in Science estimated that at the current rate of fishing the world will run out of seafood within our lifetimes (by 2048). Even just the amount of fishing so far has been enough to decimate 90% of many species (such as tuna, salmon, and cod) and 7% of the species are already extinct.[14] Due to the rapid depletion of fish, we must either voluntarily catch far fewer fish or we’ll be forced to because the cost of catching the fish will be too astronomical. Either way, even small quantities of good quality fish are already so expensive that most of the world’s population can’t afford them on a routine basis.

Due to increasing demand for seafood, fish farming (aquaculture) has been increasing for decades and now supplies over half of the seafood consumed worldwide. Unfortunately, this is by no means a perfect solution to our troubled oceans, lakes, and rivers as fish farming introduces a host of environmental risks due to the spread of disease, feed production, and waste removal. Even more critically, fish farming poses serious threats to the local environments, including surrounding native fish populations.[15] All these threats should be particularly serious concerns for Latter-day Saints given our strong commitment to stewardship of the earth, as described on the Church’s website, “Environmental Stewardship and Conservation.”

A lot of resources are going into creating sustainable sources of seafood. So far, this effort has not been successful, and it is unclear that it could be successful at supplying even the current rate of seafood consumption. Since all the nutrients in fish are readily found in plant foods that can be easily grown at a sustainable pace, at a fraction of the cost, and with much less impact on the environment, these facts might suggest we get our nutrients from plant foods instead of fish.

What about the fact that Jesus ate fish? This might not be relevant in light of the fact that the Word of Wisdom was designed for our day; it was not the health code of the Bible. Jesus did not live in a world with food available on every corner, or in an environment where the water, rain, and fish were polluted. In the Bible, Jesus and other Biblical prophets also drank wine, but in our day, we are asked to not drink wine. Perhaps the wine they drank was substantially weaker than what is available today and used in less quantities. Likewise, the reason the Lord does not recommend eating fish in Section 89 could be because in our day it is not best for our bodies and it is harmful to our planet.

If this interpretation is correct, the Word of Wisdom provides no endorsement for the use of fish in modern times, so we might want to never use these foods, even sparingly.

Fish and the Word of Wisdom

The Word of Wisdom is silent on the subject of fish, so we each get to decide what that means. As Elder Bednar recommends, we should carefully study the doctrine and principles related to the Word of Wisdom and seek the Lord’s guidance through prayer.

My analysis in this article is not meant to determine the correct interpretation of the role of fish in the Word of Wisdom, but rather to open up ways to think about this topic that may help us receive our own inspiration. I believe when we do our best to understand—and most importantly to follow—what we believe the Lord is asking of us, we are putting ourselves in a position to receive further light and truth. That is all we need to do in order to steadily make progress in our journey toward fully embracing the Word of Wisdom.

Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom

Next in this series, I’ll be examining the last type of food ordained of God: grain, the staff of life (D&C 89:14–17).

Getting Started

One healthy way of eating in harmony with the Word of Wisdom is a whole food, plant-based diet. For more information, 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.”

Notes

[1] I explore how Elder David A. Bednar’s teachings can illuminate our study of the Word of Wisdom in “Distinguishing Between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” Meridian Magazine (August 8, 2016).

[2] Webster’s Dictionary 1828 – Online Edition.

[3] Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).

[4] You can find links to many of these studies in Robert Roose, “Fish is healthy? Fishiness Behind the Science of Fish,” CarobCherub.com (last updated January 2016).

[5] Washington State Department of Health, “Health Benefits of Fish,” doh.wa.gov (Last accessed November 11, 2016).

[6] American Heart Association, “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” Heart.org (October 6, 2016).

[7] Robert Roose, “Fish is healthy? Fishiness Behind the Science of Fish,” CarobCherub.com (last updated January 2016).

[8] Dustin Rudolph, “Fish Is Not a Health Food – Why You Should Reconsider Including It In Your Diet,” PlantBasedPharmacist.com (April 2016). See also Michael Greger, “Fish and Diabetes,” NutritionFacts.org (May 2, 2014).

[9] Michael Greger, “Omega 3s, Prostate Cancer, and Atrial Fibrillation,” NutritionFacts.org (October 26, 2015). See also: Sofia Pineda Ochoa, “Is Fish a Health Food, or Have We Just Let It Off the Hook?” ForksOverKnives.com (October 29, 2015).

[10] Ailsa A. Welch, et al., “Dietary intake and status of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in a population of fish-eating and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and the product-precursor ratio [corrected] of α-linolenic acid to long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: results from the EPIC- Norfolk cohort,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (November 2010) 92(5):1040-51.

[11] Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Fish,” pcrm.org (Last accessed November 11, 2016). See also Michael Greger, “How Seafood Can Impact Brain Development,” Care2.com (May 2, 2014) and Michael Greger, “Fish Consumption and Suicide,” NutritionFacts.org (July 27, 2015).

[12] Note, for example, that the Institute of Medicine has determined that the adequate daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids for women is 1.1 gm/day and 1.6 gm/day for men. One tablespoon of ground flax seed provides 1.6 grams of omega-3. See also: John A. McDougall “Confessions of a Fish Killer,” McDougall Newsletter (June 2007) and Sofia Pineda Ochoa, “Is Fish a Health Food, or Have We Just Let It Off the Hook?” ForksOverKnives.com (October 29, 2015).

[13] Sylvia Earle, “Ocean 2050: How to Sustain Our Biggest Ecosystem,” BBC.com (December 6, 2013).

[14] Boris Worm, et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science (Nov 3, 2006), 314(5800):787-90.

[15] Jean-Michel Cousteau, “The Future of Sustainable Fish Farming,” OceanFutures.org (March 17, 2014). See also “Why Fish Farming is Unsustainable and Harming the Planet,” OneGreenPlanet.org (July 19, 2012).