This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
Last time in “Paleo Diet and Grains,” I contrasted the Paleo diet perspective on grains with the one given us in the Word of Wisdom. Where Paleo experts contend that grains are unhealthy and should be no part of the human diet, the Lord tells us that all grain is good and ordained to be the “staff of life.” I also discussed the meaning of the idiom “staff of life,” which refers to a staple food, or a food that provides a large percent of needed calories. I concluded that the Paleo perspective on grains contradicts the counsel given by the Lord in D&C 89.
Today I continue my examination of the Paleo diet by looking at the role of meat. In the first article of this series, “The Problem with Paleo,” I contrasted the Paleo perspective on meat with the Word of Wisdom. Like grains, I concluded that the difference between these two worldviews could not be more sharp. Where Paleo experts contend that our evolutionary past tells us our bodies are adapted to meat as the staple of our diets, the Lord in D&C 89 asks us to use meat “sparingly” (v. 12). Further, the Lord tells us that it is pleasing to Him if we do not use meat except in times of winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger (vss. 13 & 15). In this article, I will present a few of the reasons I believe the Paleo perspective on meat is flawed.
Although I am fairly critical of the Paleo diet in this article, I do believe there are some good things about this diet as well. See the first article in this series for a list of these better qualities.
The Myth of the Paleolithic Diet
According to experts who promote the Paleo diet, we should be eating like the Paleolithic hunter-gathers, who they claim got the majority of their calories from eating animals.
The first thing to observe about this claim is that we actually do not know precisely what Paleolithic people ate. We do know that humans are opportunistic eaters. God made our bodies so that they are highly flexible. As omnivores, we can get nutrients from a very wide range of food sources, allowing us to survive in a great many food environments, even some very difficult ones (including 21st century America—surely one of the most difficult food environments in history!).
We know there were many different groups of Paleolithic people in many different environments eating a variety of foods, depending on the location. What we do not know is that they got the majority of their calories from meat, as Paleo experts claim. No doubt there may have been tribes who did, but there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that the majority of calories in the Paleolithic diet came from starch/carbohydrates, just as it has throughout all of recorded history.
The ancestors of the Paleolithic people were almost exclusively vegetarian and, with rare exception, no physiological change occurred during the Paleolithic period to make them more adapted to meat consumption. Like the Paleolithic peoples, our bodies are most finely adapted to consuming plants, not animals. This is obvious when we compare our anatomy (e.g. face, teeth, and digestive system) with true carnivores. Compare your teeth with the teeth of your dog or cat to witness how different we are.
We tend to idealize the image of a hunter: a manly man with great physique, an expert at using weapons and capturing wild prey. In actuality, it is very difficult to hunt wild animals, especially on foot with primitive tools. No doubt Paleolithic peoples were occasionally successful, but they had to exert a tremendous amount of energy to do so and then share the food with others in the tribe. We humans, unlike most wild animals, are fairly slow creatures. The advantage of capturing plants is obvious. We can outrun every known plant!
We Can’t Eat What the Paleolithic Peoples Ate
Even if we knew what the Paleolithic peoples ate, we could not duplicate their food because that food no longer exists.
We hear a lot about how grains have “changed,” but hear very little about how all the plants have changed, both through natural evolution and human intervention. Whether we like it or not, it is impossible to consume the same vegetation the Paleolithic people consumed. Most of us should be grateful for this! They subsisted on tough, bitter greens and other vegetation. While the plants were very nutritive, even the fruit was small and relatively bitter.
But it is not just the vegetation that has changed, the meat today is also quite different from Paleolithic time periods. Of course this is true for factory-farmed meat (which Paleo experts agree is not the best source of meat). But even meat from relatively “clean animals” fed a relatively “clean diet” is very different than meat from wild animals that lived thousands of years ago. Paleolithic animals were, for example, much leaner (dramatically less fat).
Certainly organic, grass-fed, free-range, and wild meats are preferable to factory-farmed meat, but that does not make them healthful. Could you be persuaded to eat some wild fruit that is known to make people sick if you knew it was “organic and non-GMO”? Some differences don’t make enough of a difference. No matter what animals are fed or how they are raised, animal flesh unavoidable contains too much dietary cholesterol, saturated fat, steroids, and hormones and not enough fiber, phytochemicals, and other important nutrients.
Paleolithic peoples often experienced a chronic shortage of food. It was in their best interest to consume very rich foods whenever possible because these foods were relatively rare and available only in small amounts. We live in a much different food environment. With barely any physical effort, we can obtain platefuls of Paleo-approved rich foods. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can duplicate the Paleolithic experience. We live in a different period of time, which may be one of the reasons the Lord revealed a food plan specifically designed for our day.
Paleo Diet is Not Civilized and Is Not Sustainable
Even if some Paleolithic peoples ate a substantial amount of meat and we could obtain the same type of meat, that doesn’t mean this is wise for us to do. Just because a substance has been consumed for a very long time does not make it healthful for us today. Alcohol, for example, has been consumed by humans for a very long time, but that does not make it a health food. Likewise, not only is consuming a large quantity of meat not good for human health, it is not good for the environment, and certainly not good for the animals.
If there is one thing most nutrition experts agree on, it is that we need to be consuming far more plants and far less meat. Increased plant consumption is consistently linked with increased health, whereas increased meat consumption is consistently linked with a long list of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and strokes.
Meat is not just harmful to human health, it is harmful to the environment. It takes far more energy, water, land, and other natural resources to produce meat than to produce plant foods. Producing meat in large quantities (even when it is organic) contributes substantially to pollution, water shortages, and greenhouse gases. It also diverts resources that could be used to feed more of the world’s poor. Most Paleo experts do not find this fact relevant because they don’t believe morality has a role in evolution or in determining the ideal diet. But we Latter-day Saints have a different perspective because we understand that God made us stewards of this earth and therefore we have a responsibility to care for it and to care for our fellow human beings, including (perhaps especially) the least among us (Matt. 25:40).
And of course, a Paleo diet for the world would be a complete nightmare for the animals. We are already killing many millions of animals a day to feed the current demand. In situations where meat is needed to sustain life, no doubt the death of an animal is a worthy sacrifice to save a human life, but in a world with of plenty of grains, nearly all of this slaughter is completely unnecessary. As more people become wealthy enough to eat more meat, even more animals will needlessly die. This is in sharp contrast to the counsel and warning God declared when He gave Noah permission to use animals for food:
And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands. (JST Genesis 9:11, emphasis added)
Paleo experts readily agree that what they believe to be the ideal human diet cannot provide sufficient calories for the over 7 billion people alive today, not to mention the 11 billion projected by 2100. Only a “privileged” few can consume so much meat, much less so much organic, grass-fed meat, as the Paleo experts recommend. From the Paleo perspective, it is just too bad the world can’t produce enough meat to feed the huge number of people on this earth. In fact, from the Paleo perspective, it is ill fortune there are as many people on this earth in the first place. To them, population explosion is yet another negative result of the Agricultural Revolution and the widespread consumption of grains.
But God’s wisdom points in a different direction. We know we are God’s children. Central to the Plan of Salvation is coming to earth to obtain a body. Sending billions of His children to this earth is a critical part of this Plan and essential to His (and our) purpose. Mortal bodies must consume food, and God has to provide enough calories for the billions of His children to receive a human body and experience mortality. Providing food for His children is so central to the Plan of Salvation that the Lord ordained certain foods for our use. And of all the foods He ordained for our use, He specifically ordained grains to serve a central role as the “staff of life.” Meat is not ordained to be the staff of life, rather it is ordained to play a much smaller (though still critical) role in our diets: providing food in times of winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger (see D&C 89).
We are People of the Soil and Seed
While we don’t know exactly what Paleolithic peoples ate, we do know what our first parents, Adam and Eve, ate in the Garden of Eden. They ate “every herb bearing seed,” or in other words, plants (Genesis 1:29). They did not consume any animals. After the fall, we are told that God sent them out to “till the ground” (Genesis 2:23). The first mention in the Bible of humans being given permission to eat meat is after the flood (see JST Genesis 9:9, 11).
When the Children of Israel were wandering 40 years in the wilderness, God blessed them with wholesome manna (bread). Only after they complained and lusted for meat did God in anger send them quail (Numbers 11). Of course throughout the Bible, God places heavy restrictions on the killing and consuming of any animal flesh. The Children of Israel were primarily farmers. Wheat was “the staff of life.” According to Jewish scholars:
[Meat] was served daily only at the king’s table [I Kings 4:23], and there because sacrifices were offered every day. Otherwise, animals were probably slaughtered only for the great festivals (“ḥaggim”), at the yearly sacrificial feasts of families and tribes, at family festivals (such as circumcisions and weddings), for guests, etc.
The righteous Nephites were also people of the soil:
And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land. (Mosiah 9:9)
In contrast, the Lamanites are depicted by the Nephites as being less civilized, meat-eating people:
they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us. (Enos 1:20)
It is perfectly true that humans have consumed animal foods (whenever they could) for most of the world’s history. It is also true that many humans have enjoyed good health on a diet that has included animal foods in moderation. But it is not true that any large population has ever thrived on a diet heavy in meat and other animal foods. Every large, healthy population throughout the documented history of the world has gotten the majority of their calories from grains and other starches.
But regardless of world history or what peoples of the distance past ate, the Lord has given specific instruction, a “principle with a promise,” to “all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2 & 3). The promise of the Word of Wisdom is not just physical health, but spiritual health and well-being (vss. 18–21). Even if a Paleo diet were healthful, could it ever compare to the blessings the Lord promises us when it contradicts the Lord’s wisdom? According to Elder Russell M. Nelson:
We will be careful about which counsel we heed. Many so-called experts give advice for the body—without thought for the spirit. Anyone who accepts direction contrary to the Word of Wisdom, for example, forsakes a law revealed to bring both physical and spiritual blessings.
Of course, given how poorly many of us eat, a Paleo diet may be healthier than many other diets, but why settle for something less when we have been given something better?
More on Paleo and More on the Word of Wisdom
For an excellent summary of the main weaknesses of a Paleo Diet, watch this 22-minute TED Talk by Christina Warinner, PhD (Assistant Professor of Anthropology), “Debunking the Paleo Diet,” TedxOU (February 12, 2013).
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet”
Coming Soon: “Discovering the Word of Wisdom” Short Film
I’m producing a short film about the Word of Wisdom to encourage more Mormons to take a serious look at this counsel. It will be free and on YouTube. If you’d like to be notified when the film is completed, go to Discovering the Word of Wisdom Short Film.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Next week I hope to conclude this series on the Paleo diet.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013) and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 Peter S. Ungar & Mark F. Teaford (Eds.), The Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2002).
 See expert analysis and peer-reviewed research cited in John A. McDougall, “Paleo Diet Is Uncivilized (and Unhealthy and Untrue),” McDougall Newsletter (June 2012).
 Katherine Milton, “Hunter-Gather Diets: Wild Foods Signal Relief from Diseases of Affluence,” in Ungar & Teaford, The Human Diet.
 I recognize that Paleo experts dispute whether animal substances like cholesterol and saturated fat are harmful to the human body. To a certain degree, I agree with them. While these substances are highly correlated with disease, thinking that these cause disease is reductionistic. We don’t eat cholesterol or saturated fat. We eat animals. The Lord did not tell us to avoid consuming cholesterol and saturated fat. He told us to avoid consuming animals. We really aren’t sure all the reasons why. We don’t need to know all the reasons why in order to follow this advice.
 See, for example, “Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee,” USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (February 2015).
 T. Colin Campbell & Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health (Dallas: Benbella, 2006).
 David Pimentel & Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-based and Plant-based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(suppl) (2003): 660S–3S.
 Emil G. Hirsch, Wilhelm Nowack, Solomon Schechter, & Samuel Krauss, “Food,” Jewish Encyclopedia (1906).
 John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution (New York: Rodale, 2012).
 Russell M. Nelson, “We are Children of God,” (General Conference, October 1998).