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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.
Last time, in “Visualizing the Word of Wisdom,” I introduced a simple visual representation of our relationship as LDS Church members to “keeping the Word of Wisdom.” I used this visual image to try to capture both the letter and the spirit of the Word of Wisdom while also honoring the important distinctions between doctrines, principles, and applications. If you have not had a chance to see this visualization, it may be helpful to check it out before reading today’s article.
WFPB ≠ WoW
Given the broad-based principles of the Word of Wisdom, faithful Latter-day Saints might honestly label any number of diets as a “Word of Wisdom diet.” Long-time readers of this series know that I personally favor a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet for a good number of reasons, and so the purpose of today’s article is to explore the relationship between a WFPB diet and the Word of Wisdom. My conclusion is that while a WFPB diet may be a superb Word of Wisdom diet, a WFPB diet is not the same thing as the Word of Wisdom. In mathematical language: WFPB ≠ WoW.
To make this comparison, I use the framework Elder David A. Bednar developed to discuss the important distinctions between doctrines, principles, and applications. This framework can help us understand why a WFPB diet (and all other human-created diets) are not the Word of Wisdom itself.
In short: the Word of Wisdom reveals the “order and will of God” for His children in the last days (D&C 89:2). It is based on powerful gospel doctrines that are key to the entire Plan of Salvation. In contrast, a WFPB diet is at best the conclusions of inspired and intelligent mortals about what constitutes a healthy diet. It is powerful as far as their reasoning and evidence go, but it is limited by human wisdom. A WFPB diet can help us live longer, healthier lives, but living the Word of Wisdom can prepare us for exaltation.
Word of Wisdom vs. Whole Food, Plant-based
Doctrines vs. Rationales
According to Elder Bednar, gospel doctrines answer the question “Why?” The doctrines of the gospel teach us why caring for our body is so important. They teach us that we are created in God’s express “image” (Genesis 1:27), that we are “wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:13), and that our body is a “temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 6:19). When we understand these divine doctrines, the purpose of the human body, and its critical role in our exaltation, we understand why it is imperative that we honor, respect, and care for our body as a sacred stewardship from God.
It is true that many plant-based diets are founded on ethical principles that resonate with gospel doctrines, and some of the leading WFPB advocates believe as we do that the body is a temple of God. However, a WFPB diet is not founded on gospel doctrine. WFPB experts begin with a very different answer to the question “Why should we care for our bodies?” As is true of many human-created diets, the (typically unstated) rationale is the common-sense belief that living longer with a healthier body is better than experiencing less health and a shortened lifespan. These are very worthwhile values, but they pale in comparison to the gospel understanding of the role of the physical body in the Plan of Salvation.
This contrast between these two approaches is important. As Elder Bednar explains, the answers to the question “why” are foundational to everything that follows.
Principles vs. Guidelines
Principles help us understand “What?” (e.g., given this doctrine, what principles should direct our actions?). Interestingly, although the underlying doctrine of the Word of Wisdom is quite distinct from the rationale for a WFPB diet, the guiding principles of these two approaches are similar in many ways. The following guiding principles describe both the Word of Wisdom and a WFPB diet.
- Avoid harmful substances.
- Consume wholesome plant foods.
- Use animal flesh sparingly, if at all.
- Make grains the staple of the diet.
One of the reasons I love the WFPB guidelines is that from my perspective they resonate with the principles of the Word of Wisdom. It is possible they harmonize well because they are both inspired by God. But even if that is true, without the doctrinal foundation, the two sets of guiding principles are not the same.
Recall Elder Bednar’s claim: the answers to the question “why” are foundational to everything that follows. The Word of Wisdom begins with doctrines such as we are made in the image of God and that our bodies are a gift from Him and that this counsel is a divine revelation for our welfare. A WFPB diet begins with the foundational rationale that we want to live long, healthy lives. Both may be true, but notice how the way you look at the guiding principles shifts when you go from one perspective to the other.
Perhaps most importantly, because the Word of Wisdom is principle-based, it doesn’t avoid ambiguity, nor is it elaborated on at length. The entire revelation is less than 600 words. This encourages us to use our agency to discover its meaning and how to apply it in our lives, and it allows us to learn “line upon line” as we develop greater desire and capacity to embrace it. In contrast, WFPB experts try to explain WFPB nutrition as clearly and unambiguously as possible, and there are hundreds of books, articles, videos, and websites devoted to explaining it.
Applications vs. Dos and Don’ts
Applications answer “How?” (e.g., how do we apply gospel principles given our individual needs and circumstances?). Here is where the Word of Wisdom is again quite distinct from a WFPB diet. Joseph Smith taught, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” The Word of Wisdom is firmly grounded in doctrines and principles, so the Lord uses relatively few examples of specific substances and foods to illustrate how to apply the principles being taught. As with other gospel principles, we are expected to learn how to apply them “by study and by faith” (D&C 88:118).
In contrast, WFPB experts encourage those interested in WFPB nutrition to learn by “study” alone. They do not emphasize the necessity of faith or the critical role the Holy Ghost can play in applying truth. Their focus instead is on more concrete lists of dos and don’ts, rules, and examples. While these can be very useful, they look overly prescriptive from a gospel perspective, particularly because the Word of Wisdom is designed to suit the needs of all members of the Church, including the “weak and the weakest” (D&C 89:3).
We love lists of dos and don’ts because they are less ambiguous and easier to follow, especially when we are novice learners. But as we progress in our understanding, the dos and don’ts can become a burden. We soon learn they do not shed light on a great many nuances. These nuances require the development of greater wisdom to guide us. From a gospel perspective, the greater wisdom we need is the wisdom we can receive under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It takes spiritual maturity and humility to discipline ourselves to hearken to the voice of the Spirit. In contrast, the WFPB dos and don’ts can generally be followed even if we are not spiritually in tune with the Spirit of God.
Authors: God vs. Human
Perhaps no difference between WFPB and the Word of Wisdom is more obvious and fundamental than the difference between the authors. The same God who designed our bodies after His image designed the Word of Wisdom to teach His children how to care for those bodies. We sometimes doubt the conclusions of even the best and brightest humans, but we can have complete faith that God knows best how to care for our bodies. This can dramatically increase our confidence in following His counsel when it contradicts popular opinion, our own gut instincts, or even scientific consensus.
In contrast, a WFPB diet was developed by scientists, clinicians, and other experts. They draw on the large body of scientific research, clinical experience, historical evidence, and reasoning to develop the guiding principles. However, unlike the Word of Wisdom, the guidelines and research conclusions have changed over time and will undoubtedly change to some degree in the future. In addition, other equally qualified experts have come to contradictory conclusions. However inspired any of these experts may be, they are not God; they are not perfect.
As an example of the contrast, note how alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are treated in the Word of Wisdom versus the opinions of WFPB experts. In the Word of Wisdom, the Lord condemns the use of alcohol, tobacco, and “hot drinks” as being “not for the body” without providing a shred of evidence (D&C 89:5–9). In contrast, WFPB experts point to extensive scientific research to condemn the use of tobacco and discourage the use of alcohol. However, while some WFPB experts discourage the use of coffee and tea, others feel the scientific evidence suggests that coffee need not be entirely eliminated and that tea may even have health benefits. As faithful Latter-day Saints, we trust the Author of the Word of Wisdom and do not need to wait for more scientific evidence to make our decision about using these substances.
Purposes: Salvation vs. Health
The Word of Wisdom is designed for the “temporal salvation of all saints” (D&C 89:2). It is given as a warning “in consequence of the evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (v. 4). Hearing these loving words from our Savior sets the context for the entire revelation, which is described as “the order and will of God” (v. 2).
While WFPB experts appear to share the Lord’s concerns about the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men,” their perspective is certainly much more limited than God’s. Their words do not constitute revelation, nor do they claim to reveal the “order and will of God.” At best, they try to communicate the finest scientific, historical, and clinical evidence available. Their purpose is to make us healthier; they cannot offer salvation.
Promises: Spiritual vs. Secular
The Word of Wisdom is explicitly given as a “principle with promise” (D&C 89:3). These beautiful promises are described in D&C 89:18–21. They include health in the navel and marrow in bones; wisdom and great treasures of knowledge; running and not being weary, walking and not fainting; and having the explicit promise that the destroying angel will pass us by and not slay us. These promises suggest that the blessings go far beyond physical health to include great spiritual blessings of wisdom and protection.
The promise of WFPB experts is that we will feel better physically—and maybe even mentally and emotionally. WFPB experts can’t promise great spiritual blessings, though of course I’m sure the Lord is pleased to bless us when we follow the principles of the Word of Wisdom even if we encounter them in secular sources.
Let’s Be Clear About Who We Should Trust
As helpful as a WFPB diet is, no human-created diet should be confused with the Word of Wisdom. As the Creator of our bodies and the Author of our salvation, the Lord knows exactly what is best for us and also the best way to instruct us. I have complete trust in the counsel found in the Word of Wisdom. I am also confident that I only understand a fraction of what it says, but I have faith that if I continue to seek the Lord’s guidance, He will reveal all that is needed for my temporal and eternal salvation. We are safe in His hands!
God works through mere mortals to give us light and knowledge for our temporal and eternal welfare. I personally believe He has given great light and knowledge to scientists and other experts who can be His tools in illuminating the truths revealed to us in the Word of Wisdom. He tells us, “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). We can learn great wisdom from the words and writings of wise men and women, as long as we do not “trust in man” or “hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 28:31).
I believe secular experts may have a great deal to teach us, even about the Word of Wisdom. We can be humble and open to new ideas and insights, no matter where they come from, but let us use the Holy Ghost as our guide. Gladly, if we “counsel with the Lord in all our doings,” He will “direct [us] for good” (Alma 37:37).
Our destiny can be much greater than the goal of long, healthy lives. We are created in God’s image because we can become like Him in all things. Learning to care for our body has a value far beyond physical health; after all, “this flesh” will eventually “rot” and “crumble to its mother earth” (2 Nephi 9:7). The ultimate value in the Word of Wisdom is not the perfection of our physical bodies, but rather preparing our minds, hearts, and souls for exaltation.
While a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet is not the Word of Wisdom, it can be one of the sources we study to illuminate our understanding of the Word of Wisdom. For more information, see: “Getting Started on a WFPB Word of Wisdom Diet.”
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.”
 David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2011). See also the series of articles I have been writing that use this framework to analyze the Word of Wisdom: Doctrines, Principles, and Applications.
 For more on the doctrines of the Word of Wisdom, see Jane Birch, “The Doctrine of the Word of Wisdom,” Meridian Magazine (August 15, 2016).
 I certainly don’t want to diminish in any way the very profound and significant spiritual and religious purposes of many WFPB experts and other proponents. We are all spiritual beings, and the foods we eat are intricately connected to our spiritual lives, to the planet, and to all the creatures of this world. Many plant-based advocates are very sensitive to these spiritual truths which harmonize so well with gospel doctrines.
 There are, of course, important distinctions between the two approaches. A WFPB diet more explicitly (1) avoids heavily processed, refined foods, including oils; (2) excludes all animal foods (including dairy and eggs); and (3) adds all whole starch foods to grains as the “staff of life.”
 Quoted by John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star (15 Nov. 1851), 339.