Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. do not follow the Word of Wisdom. I’m not referring to those who have drifted away from the faith or are inactive. I’m talking about members who sail through a temple recommend interview convinced they’re in compliance with our divinely inspired health guide.
Only they’re not. Neither are most of their bishops.
As a registered nurse and health columnist, I’m greatly concerned by this.
To be fair, the Word of Wisdom could use a modern-day revision. It makes no mention of some very unhealthy choices many of us rely on today. In the 1800s, most of the early Saints grew their own food. They did not routinely leave Walmart with carts full of ultra-processed foods, pastries, chips and 2-liter soda bottles. In that era, if you avoided the “big bad four” — coffee, tea, alcohol and smoking — you were probably eating healthy and would never develop an obesity-related disease like Type 2 diabetes.
That’s not the case today. Just go to a typical ward, or congregation, on any given Sunday. You want proof of our unhealthy diets? It’s visible in nearly every pew in the chapel. According to 1996 data from Brigham Young University health science professor Ray Merrill, Utah Latter-day Saints were, on average, 34% more likely to be obese than other Utahns. A 2006 update to that study did show improvement: Utah Latter-day Saints were 14% more likely to be obese.
That’s a move in the right direction, but Latter-day Saint obesity is still a problem. Even here on the East Coast, where I live, the overweight members tend to outnumber the lean ones. If you stay for an after-church potluck, you will understand why. There is nothing healthy about the way most of us eat.
So how can we possibly claim to follow the Word of Wisdom and eat and look like we do? Being overweight puts you at a higher risk for virtually every chronic illness known to humankind, including cancer. Recently I had to explain to a grieving spouse why her husband developed cirrhosis of the liver. “He never drank!” she assured me. But he was morbidly obese and had no clue that sugar and processed foods are every bit as hard on the liver as alcohol.
The point of this commentary is not to throw stones or shame anyone. I have no room to. I once lived in a “glass house” myself, made of sugar, white flour and high fructose corn syrup. Or maybe I built it out of cartons of Hamburger Helper and Honey Nut Cheerios — I’m not quite sure. The point is, I never thought my diet was all that bad because I was slender and fairly athletic, well into my 40s.
But I was a ticking time bomb. When I hit 50 and gradually added on some extra weight, I ultimately smashed into the brick wall of my poor health choices. It wasn’t until a diagnosis of fatty liver disease and my fourth autoimmune disease that I knew things had to change. Today I am convinced those illnesses were preventable.
So the finger I am pointing here points back to me as well. I didn’t follow the Word of Wisdom either. If I had looked more closely at the church’s Doctrine and Covenants 89, I might have seen where I was going wrong. In its verses, we’re instructed to eat whole grains (white flour was not plentiful then), fruits, vegetables and herbs, and to use meat sparingly, mostly in colder months.
Did I follow that? Heck no. I ate the standard American diet: sugary cereals or waffles for breakfast, deli meats on white bread for lunch, and some type of meat again for dinner. When I served a vegetable other than a potato smothered in butter or gravy, it was in relatively small quantities because none of us was that fond of them. Between meals I’d grab a few cookies or perhaps a bit of chocolate. Yet I confidently answered the Word of Wisdom question in the affirmative every time I sat down with my bishop.
Who was I kidding? Today I am paying the price for my selective reading of Doctrine and Covenants 89. And as tempting as it is to blame my illnesses on its vagueness, I find I cannot. While it says nothing about avoiding all the processed foods and junk I consumed for decades, looking back, I instinctively knew I was not eating as I should.
The good news is, if we’re serious about following the entirety of the Word of Wisdom, including its recommendation for a primarily plant-based diet, there is ample evidence we will reap great rewards. Multiple long-term health studies of Seventh-day Adventists in California have found those who are vegetarian live longer than other Americans (nine years longer for men and six for women). They don’t merely abstain from the “big four”; their diet is mostly grains, fruits and vegetables. If they eat meat or processed foods at all, it’s a rarity.
These Seventh-day Adventists are living the Word of Wisdom better than we are. Perhaps it’s time we Latter-day Saints start following their example.
(Cindy Sanford is a health columnist and registered nurse, now retired, with 40 years of experience. She writes from Bloomsburg, Pa., where she currently works as a hospice aide. The views in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)