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.
I’ve been discussing three key principles in the Word of Wisdom way to weight loss:
1. Focus on low calorie dense whole plant foods.
2. Abstain from foods that trigger cravings.
3. Rely wholly on the Lord.
Last week I addressed the first principle: Focus on low calorie dense whole foods, which are the “wholesome” plant foods God ordained for our health. I suggested that if we use any high calorie dense foods, we should choose the healthier options and use them sparingly. When we follow this simple counsel, not only is weight loss easy, we don’t need to count calories, carbs, or points. (See previous article for details.)
Throughout history, most of our ancestors ate a diet comprised primarily of low calorie dense whole plant foods, and they successfully avoided both obesity and the chronic diseases that are common today. Not only did they manage doing this without counting calories, they didn’t even know what calories were! Of course, our ancestors did not restrict themselves because they understood the Word of Wisdom or because they were trying to eat a “healthy diet.” Their taste buds were no doubt not much different than ours, and, given the opportunity, they would have indulged in rich foods, but they were restricted by what was available and what they could afford.
We, on the other hand, live in a much different food environment. We can easily eat calorie rich foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . and we do! Over 85% of the calories consumed in America come from calorie dense foods. No wonder we are all gaining weight!
The solution would seem simple: abstain from these foods. But as anyone who has tried this knows, it is anything but easy! Calorie dense foods are addictive and therefore difficult to limit.
D&C 89: The Word of Wisdom
Soon after Joseph Smith received the revelation contained in D&C 89, he read it out loud to the elders gathered at the School of the Prophets. On hearing it, they “immediately threw their tobacco pipes into the fire.” Unfortunately, observing the Word of Wisdom wasn’t quite so easy for most of the Saints! As we now know, it took about 100 years before this became standard practice in the Church, and even then many still struggled.
Why was it so hard?
Alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are not just random substances the Lord chose to test the faith of the Saints. I’m sure if instead He had asked the Saints to give up carrot juice, herbal tea, strawberries, and sweet potatoes there would have been some sadness, perhaps even heartache, but the compliance level would have been much higher. There is a big difference between giving up tobacco and giving up sweet potatoes, even if you love sweet potatoes (as I do!).
What Foods are Addictive?
All calorie dense foods are potentially addictive. Sugar is the substance we hear most about, but other foods with high concentrations of sugar and/or fat, often in combination with refined carbohydrates, can be addicting. Foods like meat and cheese not only contain high concentrations of fat, they contain other chemicals that appear to be addicting, as does chocolate also. These foods cause observable physiological changes to our bodies, increasing, for example, the dopamine rush to our brains that we find so pleasurable. Actually, all foods, even healthy foods, trigger pleasure signals in our brains, but addictive foods do so more strongly than others. We can then become habituated to these signals and start to crave them, even experiencing a physiological need for them.
While it is true that, when consumed sparingly, foods like cookies, donuts, BBQ ribs, and string cheese will not do us much harm, the same is true of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. In fact, a case can be made for each of these substances being beneficial to the human body in some ways. No doubt. But they are also harmful, and worse, each carries a danger: the danger of addiction. This is a danger we should all take much more seriously, as so much of our happiness depends on gaining freedom from addictions of all kinds!
Most of us would never consider taking even the first drink or smoking the first cigarette. And yet we may have unwittingly allowed ourselves to become addicted to certain foods. It is common to hear people say, “I could never give up X.” That X might be meat or cheese or sugar or soda pop. A friend of mine who is critically ill with cancer told me, “Jane, I’d rather die than give up my chicken!” Apparently, she is not alone. A survey of over 1,000 adults revealed that about one in four Americans wouldn’t give up meat for a week even if they were paid $1,000 to do so.
Even people who desperately want to change their diets find it extremely challenging if they are addicted to unhealthy foods. I have become keenly aware of this as I communicate with many very faithful Latter-day Saints who are trying to stop eating foods they believe are harmful. While we Mormons are doing a great job abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, too many of us are seriously addicted to sugar, meat, cheese, chocolate, and other rich foods!
Why Are These Calorie Dense Foods so Irresistible?
It took some time for science to catch up to the Lord’s wisdom, but we now understand the additive nature of certain substances. These substances trigger chemical reactions in our bodies that we experience as rewarding. We are motivated by rewards, and it is common to seek after them, even if they are harmful to us. Sadly, the more we use these substances, the more our bodies adjust to them. It then takes an increasingly larger amount of the substance to produce the same feelings of pleasure and reward. This is the cycle of addiction that can lead to catastrophic ends.
Animal foods like meat and cheese appear to contain opiate-related chemicals. These chemicals are not as highly concentrated as in street drugs, of course, but they are enough to create addiction. Cheese, in particular, “is the mother lode of opiates—dozens of them.” And when we consume meat, “opiates are released in the brain, rewarding you . . . for your calorie-dense food choice and propelling you toward making it a habit.”
Highly processed foods are also potentially addictive. When food is processed, nutrients are taken out and fat, sugar, and/or salt are added in. When health-promoting fiber and water are removed, the fat, sugar, and salt become more concentrated in the food—as a percentage of volume and calories. The more the sugar, salt, and fat are concentrated, the more stimulating, and thus addictive, the food can be. This explains why the exact same molecules (e.g., glucose and fructose) that are not addictive in whole foods like beets and corn can be addictive in the form of table sugar and Jolly Ranchers. Registered dietitian Jeff Novick explains:
The answer has to do with concentration. Same as with cocaine. Coca leaves are not very addictive. Cocaine, a more concentrated form, has a much higher potential for addiction. Crack, a much more concentrated form, is much more highly addictive.
The Danger of Addiction
When high calorie dense foods hit the pleasure signals in our brain, the stimulus can overpower judgment. This can result in more than just a stomachache! Elder M. Russell Ballard explains the potentially devastating moral consequences:
Researchers tell us there is a mechanism in our brain called the pleasure center. When activated by certain drugs or behaviors, it overpowers the part of our brain that governs our willpower, judgment, logic, and morality. This leads the addict to abandon what he or she knows is right. And when that happens, the hook is set and Lucifer takes control.
In a scientific lab, when rats were given a choice between high calorie dense foods such as sausage, cheesecake, and chocolate versus lower calorie dense foods, they chose the high calorie foods almost exclusively. They also gained weight and became obese. When scientists warn the rats (by flashing a light) that they are about to receive a “nasty foot shock,” rats eating the low calorie dense foods, “quickly stop and scramble away.” But when the obese rats eating the rich food saw the light signaling the impending shock, “time and again [they] continued to devour the rich food, ignoring the warning they had been trained to fear. Their hedonic desire overruled their basic sense of self-preservation.” Interestingly, these are the exact same results other scientists have found when experimenting with rats hooked on cocaine.
In an earlier Meridian Magazine article I wrote on food addiction, I describe in more detail the interesting research that explains the impact of calorie dense foods on our bodies and why it is almost impossible for us to maintain a healthy weight when they are a significant part of our diet. (This earlier article is a very short summary of the fascinating book The Pleasure Trap, which I highly recommend.)
Food addiction is something we should take very seriously! Just consider some of the awful consequences of over-consuming unhealthy foods:
- lack of energy
- brain fog
- weight gain and obesity
- lack of self-control
- low self-esteem
- chronic disease
Freedom from these consequences is something worth our time and effort!
Where Does the Word of Wisdom Fit into All of This?
Our Church leaders frequently speak out against addictions of every kind. Of course, these addictions include the common types we associate with the Word of Wisdom. Compulsive behaviors like pornography and gambling are frequently mentioned, but LDS leaders also warn against less apparent dangers, like excessive video-gaming, texting and use of social media. They caution us to “avoid every kind of addiction,” including specifically food addiction.
President Uchtdorf explains,
Binding chains of addiction can have many forms, like pornography, alcohol, sex, drugs, tobacco, gambling, food, work, the Internet, or virtual reality. Satan, our common enemy, has many favorite tools he uses to rob us of our divine potential to accomplish our mission in the Lord’s kingdom. It saddens our Heavenly Father to see how willingly some of His noble [children] extend their wrists to accept the chains of devastating addictions.
But why are addictions so potentially devastating? Here are just a few insights from our Church leaders:
- Elder Boyd K. Packer, “Addiction has the capacity to disconnect the human will and nullify moral agency. It can rob one of the power to decide. Agency is too fundamental a doctrine to be left in such jeopardy.”
- Elder Russell M. Nelson, “If you yield to anything that can addict, and thus defy the Word of Wisdom, your spirit surrenders to the body. The flesh then enslaves the This is contrary to the purpose of your mortal existence. And in the process of such addiction, your life span is likely to be shortened, thereby reducing the time available for repentance by which your spirit might attain self-mastery over your body.”
- Elder Robert D. Hales, “When we hearken to the Word of Wisdom, we escape the captivity of poor health and addiction to substances that literally rob us of our ability to act for ourselves.”
Just because food addiction may not be as powerful as some forms of drug addiction does not mean it does not seriously compromise our agency. Ask anyone who is struggling to overcome such addictions! And can anyone doubt the vital role agency plays in our lives? As we know, the war in heaven was fought over the principle of agency. Agency, according to Elder Russell M. Nelson, “is a gift from God, nearly as precious as life itself.” Elder Robert D. Hales reminds us, “Our wise use of agency [is] essential that we might have eternal life.” How could it ever be wise to do something that compromises our agency?
Elder Mark E. Petersen declared, “It is against the will of God that any one of us should be in bondage—in any way.” Clearly one of the central purposes of the Word of Wisdom is to help prevent (or recover from) bondage to various addictions. Although high calorie dense foods are not as harmful as street drugs, food addiction can be more subtle and difficult for us to control because (1) we have to eat; and (2) there is no commandment against consuming high calorie dense foods. But even though food addiction may not be a sin, like sin it compromises our agency by allowing our flesh to enslave our spirit.
Is There Any Hope?
If we are already addicted to any foods, is there any hope? Yes. Consider a well-known fact. Every year thousands of people join the Mormon Church. Before joining the Church, a good majority of these people regularly consume alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and/or tea. For many, these are daily pleasures they never skip. We know these substances are addictive and bring great pleasure and comfort, and they play an important role in many people’s social lives, yet investigators all over the world are able to give them up as they take on a new identity as a member of Church. Food addictions can be as strong, but they are not any stronger than addictions to alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. And yet we take it as routine that investigators are able to give up these substances and get baptized.
What is the secret to overcoming food addiction? This is obviously a topic I can’t adequately address in this article, but I provide many practical tips and suggestions in a companion webpage on “Overcoming Food Additions.” Here I briefly mention just three key strategies:
1. Pray always.
2. Abstain from foods that trigger cravings.
3. Find a friend to help you.
1. Pray Always
In analyzing the talks given by our LDS Church leaders, the counsel to pray is one of the most frequently mentioned as key to overcoming addictions of all kinds. I’ll share just one example, the wise counsel of Elder M. Russell Ballard:
If anyone who is addicted has a desire to overcome, then there is a way to spiritual freedom—a way to escape from bondage—a way that is proven. It begins with prayer—sincere, fervent, and constant communication with the Creator of our spirits and bodies, our Heavenly Father. . . . there is hope for the addicted, and this hope comes through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ and by humbling oneself before God, pleading to be freed of the bondage of addiction and offering our whole soul to Him in fervent prayer.
I’ll explore this topic in greater depth in the next article where I address the third principle in the Word of Wisdom way to weight loss: Rely wholly on the Lord.
2. Abstain from Foods That Trigger Cravings
Not all high calorie dense foods are addictive to all people, but for many of us, there are some foods we may find impossible to eat sparingly. These are foods that trigger powerful cravings in our bodies. After one small serving, we may be able to put the package away, but a little later, we pull it out and enjoy another nibble. We may seal up the package again, but before we know it, the entire package is gone. These are the foods we would probably do better to do without, if not “forever” than at least until they do not trigger strong cravings, and we are able to eat them sparingly. It usually does not work to indulge in even small amounts of foods that we find irresistible.
Since death is not the end of our lives, we know we are going to live forever, which strikes me as a very long time. Even if you are very young, if you gave up any particular food for the rest of your mortal life, this turns out to be a very short amount of time, infinitesimally small in the eternal scheme of things. Since this life is the only time in all of eternity when unhealthy and/or calorically dense foods can cause us harm, it does seem to me to be a good idea to simply not eat these foods.
Of course, this brilliant logic may seem too extreme. For many of us, it is very hard to think of giving up any foods we love for “the rest of our lives” (even if they are doing great physical, emotional, and psychological harm). If this is the case, I suggest you consider giving up foods you find addictive for a shorter time frame, maybe even as short as 30 days, one week, or even just a single day! You can do anything for one day! If it helps, just take it one day at a time.
Before long, you’ll find your taste buds changing, and it becomes much easier. Most people find, for example, that going a week without sugar radically changes their taste perceptions. Suddenly, whole fruit, for example, tastes oh so sweet and delicious! And people who used to hate vegetables come to find, over time, that they can enjoy many of them.
As you call on God in mighty prayer, ask Him to help you identify the foods that would be better for you to give up, at least for a time. Then do exactly as you feel inspired to do. Doing so, even if you are not perfect, will give you strength and allow the Lord to extend even more help to you to go the next step. Don’t worry if you falter and DO NOT beat up on yourself! It may take some time before you are completely free of all addictions . . . but this type of struggle is exactly what we are here on this earth to do. So let’s get to it!
3. Find a friend to help you.
As you seek God’s help in fervent prayer, don’t be surprised if He answers your prayers through the people you know or by sending people into your life. This is God’s way, especially with addictions. Most people cannot do this alone. Believe it or not, this is a “we thing,” not a “me thing.” We need each other’s help. We need a friend who can support us and to whom we can be accountable.
Find someone who is caring and nonjudgmental who is willing to be your “buddy” in supporting you. If you can support each other, that is great, but the person does not need to be doing this diet. Commit to reporting to this person each and every day (in person, over the phone, email, or text). Just knowing you will have to report every day will help you to stay on track. If that person can encourage you and provide nonfood rewards, all the better! (Go to “Find a Buddy” on “Getting Started.”)
In time, the strength you gain in overcoming food addictions will be a source of power in you that will enable you to serve the Lord and others in ways that will surprise you and lead to tremendous joy!
More on Overcoming Food Addiction
Obviously, this is a huge subject, and I have only covered a few topics. For more help, please see the companion page, “Overcoming Food Additions.” For more on getting started on a whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet, see “Getting Started.” For a complete list of my articles on the Word of Wisdom see Featured Author Jane Birch.
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
Next week, I’ll continue the discussion on the Word of Wisdom way to weight loss by addressing the third key principle: Rely wholly on the Lord. Let’s face it: focusing on low calorie dense whole plant foods and abstaining from foods that trigger cravings can be a challenge. If we wish to be successful, we must realize our complete dependence on the Lord and learn to rely wholly on Him. But is that not a wonderful thing?!
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.
 John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution: Eat the Foods You Love, Regain Your Health, and Lose the Weight for Good! (New York: Rodale, 2012).
 Michael Greger, “Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score,” NutritionFacts.org (4 minute video, August 24, 2011).
 Jef Woodworth, “The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89” (June 11, 2013).
 Paul H. Peterson, An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, August 1972).
 My favorite book on this topic is Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer, The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness (Summertown, TN: Healthy Living, 2003). See also references in footnotes 6 and 11 and Michael Greger, “How Fatty Foods May Affect Our Love Life,” NutritionFacts.org (August 28, 2014).
 Neal D. Barnard, Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons behind Food Cravings—And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003). See also free video, Neal Barnard, “Chocolate, Cheese, Meat, and Sugar—Physically Addictive” (40–minute video, uploaded on January 20, 2010).
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Ibid., pp. 50, 63.
 Jeff Novick, “A Date With Disaster: The Pleasure Trap of Whole Natural Foods” (June 27, 2012).
 M. Russell Ballard, “O That Cunning Plan of the Evil One,” LDS General Conference (October 2010).
 Paul J. Kenny, “Is Obesity an Addiction?” Scientific American 309, no. 3 (August 20, 2013).
 James E. Faust, “A Royal Priesthood,” LDS General Conference (April 2006).
 See Elder Uchtdorf below. Elder Robert D. Hales also specifically mentions against food addiction, “Becoming Provident Providers Temporally and Spiritually,” LDS General Conference (April 2009).
 President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Are You Sleeping through the Restoration?” LDS General Conference (April 2014), emphasis added.
 Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” LDS General Conference (October 1989).
 Russell M. Nelson, “Self-Mastery,” LDS General Conference (October 1985).
 Robert D. Hales, “Agency-Essential to the Plan of Life,” LDS General Conference (October 2010).
 Russell M. Nelson, “Addiction or Freedom,” LDS General Conference (October 1988).
 Robert D. Hales, “Agency-Essential to the Plan of Life,” LDS General Conference (October 2010).
 Mark E. Petersen, “Blessings in Self-Reliance,” LDS General Conference (October 1981).
 M. Russell Ballard, “O That Cunning Plan of the Evil One,” LDS General Conference (October 2010), emphasis added.