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 week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom pioneers I introduced one of the early LDS advocates of a relatively whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet, Dr. John R. Christopher.
This week I feature a Latter-day Saint who, over 45 years ago, recognized that the Word of Wisdom is the Lord’s answer to the number one killer of Americans since 1910: heart disease.
My Introduction to a Heart-Attack Proof Diet
I was introduced to a “heart-attack proof diet” in 2011 by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. Most of us are aware that a healthy diet can reduce our chances of suffering from chronic illness, but on that day I learned that eating a whole food, plant-based diet would do much more: it would make me heart-attack proof. My risk of suffering from most types of heart disease would drop to zero (along with my risk of stroke, hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease, obesity and a host of other chronic illnesses). The evidence backing this bold assertion was so compelling, I could not deny it. I knew this is the way humans are supposed to be eating. I joyfully changed my diet and haven’t looked back.
Dr. Esselstyn calls heart disease a “food borne” illness, emphasizing the fact that it is a preventable disease caused by the way we eat. Just like eliminating smoking prevents lung cancer, most forms of heart disease would disappear if all Americans simply followed a healthy whole food, plant-based diet. Currently one in three adults (80 million) suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, costing our economy over $300 billion a year. One out of three American deaths are due to this food borne illness. Just think of the amount of suffering that could be prevented.
The evidence for how preventable heart disease is has been accumulating for over 100 years. I will not have space here to review it, but I strongly encourage interested readers to check out the footnotes. It begins with solid evidence that establishes this fact: historically, huge segments of the world’s population eating a diet more in keeping with the Word of Wisdom rarely experienced heart disease.
Other compelling research includes studies published by Dr. Esselstyn. In his initial study, he worked with 24 patients with serious cardiovascular disease. Of these, 18 were persuaded to fully adopt his whole food, plant-based diet (no refined foods, no animals foods). All 18 fully compliant patients were able to halt (and in some cases reverse) the progression of their disease. Dr. Esselstyn has since duplicated these results with 198 cardiovascular patients. Out of the 177 who fully adopted the diet, only one experienced a major cardiac event due to recurrent heart disease. The is the lowest recurrence rate in any study ever done on heart disease. The fact that proper diet can prevent and reverse heart disease is now very well documented. No wonder the president of the American College of Cardiology has adopted a plant-based diet!
But Dr. Esselstyn was not the first to pioneer this heart disease prevention diet and certainly not the only medical doctor to see these results. Many other medical doctors have discovered the same research and experienced the same results with their patients. Most significantly, earlier work with similar results was published in best sellers by Dean Ornish, M.D. in 1990 and by Nathan Pritikin in 1979.
But even before these plant-based pioneers published their work, some of our own Latter-day Saint scholars, aided by insights from the Word of Wisdom, came to similar conclusions about the link between heart disease and diet. Today I feature one of these Word of Wisdom pioneers: Dr. Ray “Garn” Cowley.
Word of Wisdom Pioneer: Dr. Ray G. Cowley (1919–1997)
Dr. Ray Garn Cowley graduated at the top of his medical school class in 1946 before entering the military where he served 28 years in the U.S. Armed Forces. Active in research and medical practice, he published numerous articles in leading medical journals. Retiring at the rank of Colonel, he received the Legion of Merit, the second-highest peacetime award given by the President. After military retirement he became director of the largest chest hospital in the United States and later served as Director of Public Health in two different districts in Utah. Dr. Cowley served an LDS mission in the Northwestern States from 1939-1941, and later served twice as bishop and counselor in a stake presidency and two mission presidencies.
One day while traveling to a medical convention in Florida, Dr. Cowley and his family stopped at the home of a physician he knew who happened to be a Seventh Day Adventist. At dinner the physician asked him, “Why do members of your church violate your own health code?” Stunned, Dr. Cowley asked what he meant. The physician then quoted to him elements of the Word of Wisdom revelation about meat and wheat. Dr. Cowley was stumped and surprised. Thus began his serious study of this question, resulting in a lifelong passion of the topic. He went on to develop a fireside lecture on “Meat, Wheat, and Word of Wisdom,” which he shared with Latter-day Saints for many years, influencing thousands of people.
In 1969, Dr. Cowley published an amazing article for the Improvement Era entitled, “An 1833 Guide for the Prevention of Heart Disease.” His message was simple: observing all of the counsel in the Word of Wisdom would prevent and reverse heart disease. Using evidence that is strikingly similar to today’s cutting-edge understanding of the prevention of heart disease, Dr. Cowley details how the Word of Wisdom admonition to eat meat sparingly is key to preventing cardiovascular diseases of all types. Had his advice been heeded, thousands if not millions of Latter-day Saint deaths and disabilities could have been prevented.
“An 1833 Guide for the Prevention of Heart Disease,” Improvement Era, 1969
I first learned about Dr. Cowley’s Improvement Era article the same month I learned about a heart-attack proof diet. Having already studied some of the best research on the prevention of heart disease, I was immediately struck by how contemporary Dr. Cowley’s article read even though it was written over 40 years earlier. I had assumed it was only recently that we fully understood the intimate relationship between diet and heart disease. Why would by-pass surgery be such a large industry today if we had known for so long that heart disease is preventable through a healthy diet? Yet here was Dr. Cowley quoting medical experts who stated in 1965:
Observations in man as well as experimental animals over many years have shown that atherosclerosis can in fact be reversed. The mechanisms by which such reversal can be effected have been largely of a dietary nature. . . . [there is] no room for doubt that this disease . . . is preventable and reversible. (p. 61)
In this article, Dr. Cowley refers to decades of evidence that had already accumulated, study after study clearly linking diet to the number one killer in America. Exactly what kind of diet was killing Americans? According to Dr. Cowley, it was a diet—
- High in refined carbohydrates
- High in animal protein and saturated fat (which comes from animals)
- Low in cereal grains
In contrast, of course, the Word of Wisdom recommends a diet—
- High in “wholesome” (unrefined) carbohydrates (whole plant foods) (D&C 89:10–11)
- Low in animal protein and saturated fats (D&C 89:12–13)
- High in cereal grains (D&C 89:14)
In hindsight, it seems all too obvious that the Lord’s dietary wisdom is the exact opposite of the standard disease-inducing American diet, only there were not many others besides Dr. Cowley who saw this and were alerting the Latter-day Saint community to this fact!
Frankly, the medical community had been just as slow to accept this evidence. Dr. Cowley writes:
A recent list of 489 articles on the disease atherosclerosis, many showing the relationship of diet to the formation of atherosclerosis, is available to anyone interested in further pursuit of this subject. . . . Although this relationship is now supported by almost incontrovertible proof, the medical profession has been slow to accept findings that decimate a long-standing and traditional medical dictum that a steady and large dietary intake of animal or fowl origin meat is essential to good health. (p. 63)
After reviewing the scientific evidence and marveling at how clearly the Word of Wisdom matches the best science on the prevention of heart disease, Dr. Cowley concludes:
The Word of Wisdom is a remarkable revelation brought forth in 1833 as a health guide. It has remained completely unchanged in 136 years, with medical research repeatedly attesting to its validity. Contrast this to man-produced medical information of that same time period, of which the vast majority has been replaced or necessarily changed as research has revealed fallacies therein. The items of medical literature from that time that remain intact today are of value only as museum pieces.
Had Joseph Smith sought help in 1833 from the best medical authorities in the world, used their ideas in the preparation of such a document, and then declared it to be of divine origin, he would have been branded a fraud prior to the turn of the century. The only conceivable explanation for Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants is that it came from a highly advanced and infallible source of intelligence beyond this earth. The contents of this section should be carefully studied, and personal eating and living habits should be formulated on the basis of advice given therein, for this is of a certainty a divinely inspired guide to good health and long life, with transcendent rewards for compliance that should induce the most skeptical to put it to an honest test. (p. 63)
We’ve Had the Answers — We’ve Just Lacked the Will
By 1969, the evidence at Dr. Cowley’s disposal for preventing heart disease among Latter-day Saints was substantial. Of course that did not stop skeptics from being critical. In fact, after publishing Dr. Cowley’s article in the Improvement Era, the LDS magazine received a series of letters to the editor written by contemporary professors of nutrition from universities in Utah, attacking his article, repudiating the link between meat and heart disease, and denouncing his suggestion that Mormons should reduce their consumption of animal foods.
Perhaps partly due to these mixed messages, the Latter-day Saint community paid little attention to Dr. Cowley’s prescient warnings and inspired counsel. His sound reasoning and evidence was not enough to persuade the Latter-day Saints as a people to embrace the Lord’s dietary counsel and make a major move toward eradicating heart disease from their midst. Just think what a dramatic reduction in heart disease among the Latter-day Saint population might have done to wake up the world to the power of the word of God! Alas, it continues to be largely ignored. Even today, cardiovascular disease, a food borne illness which is largely preventable, is still the leading cause of death and disability among Latter-day Saints.
No wonder when I heard about a heart-attack proof diet in 2011 it was a complete revelation to me! By 2011, experts had accumulated enough understanding of how to wipe out not only heart disease but many other chronic diseases as well, and they were using a diet with which I should have been VERY familiar. Had I not learned the Word of Wisdom as a child? Was I not taught its precepts multiple times throughout my life? Why had I not learned that in 1833 the Lord had given us “a guide for the prevention of heart disease” (and many other diseases)?
The Lord gave us the answer in 1833. People who adopt a whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet routinely find that their cholesterol drops to a level where no one experiences a heart attack. They are “heart-attack proof.”
Just What is a Heart-Attack Proof Diet?
We now know a lot more than we did in 1969 about how to prevent heart disease. The diet championed by Dr. Cowley has now been refined by Dr. Esselstyn and others who have carefully identified the foods that have been scientifically proven to add “fuel to the fire” of this dreaded disease. For those at high risk (and for those who never want to be at high risk), Dr. Esselstyn recommends eliminating:
Meat (including chicken and fish)
Dairy products (including skim milk, nonfat yogurt, and cheese of all kinds)
Eggs (including egg whites)
Highly processed foods
Refined soy products
Foods high in fat
All oils (including olive, canola, and coconut oils)
Nuts, avocadoes, coconut
If you are wondering what we’d eat if we eliminated these foods, don’t worry! We can still fully enjoy all the wonderful and delicious foods made from the rich abundance of wholesome plants the Lord has ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). Yes, it can be difficult to change our diet, but let’s face the fact: it is also difficult to suffer from heart disease and the majority of us are headed in that direction!
For more help on embracing a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet”
Real Mormons • Real Stories
Deb Hadden and her husband had seven young children when they found that he had two severely blocked arteries. Deb found Dr. Esselstyn’s heart-attack proof diet, but she was only able to persuade her husband to follow it about 60% of the time. That helped him avoid a massive heart attack, but it was not enough to avoid more serious heart issues and heart surgery. Only then did he get serious about the diet. Now his symptoms have disappeared, and he is able to keep up with his six boys in playing basketball, tennis, running, and lifting weights. Plus he looks 10 years younger! Read their story here: “We avoided a massive heart attack”
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
While it is clear that Dr. Cowley’s 1969 article was ahead of its time, he was not the first Latter-day Saint to warn the LDS people that ignoring the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom leads to heart disease! Next week, I feature a 1951 article from the Improvement Era written by another Word of Wisdom pioneer: W. Dean Belnap.
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.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “About Heart Disease & Stroke.”
 The single best resource for understanding the causes of heart disease and how to prevent it is Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure (New York: Avery, 2007). See also Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s free articles and videos and watch his 15-minute TED Talk.
 Esselstyn, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
 Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., et al., “A Way to Reverse CAD?” The Journal of Family Practice 63, no. 7 (July 2014): 356–364.
 Dean Ornish, “Kim A. Williams, MD: An Example to all Doctors for Telling the Truth,” Plant-based Nutrition blog (August 31, 2014).
 Dean Ornish, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (New York: Random House, 1990) & Nathan Pritikin, The Pritikin Program for Diet & Exercise Paperback (New York: Bantam Books, 1979)
 Special thanks to Dr. Cowley’s son, William G. Cowley, for the biographical information.
 Ray G. Cowley, MD, “An 1833 Guide for the Prevention of Heart Disease,” Improvement Era (August, 1969): 60–63.