(Updated May 2017)
- What hath God ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man?
- What are to be used sparingly--only in winter, cold, or famine?
- What is the staff of life?
- What are we to use with prudence and thanksgiving?
- Which grain is singled out as being particularly good for man?
- All herbs (plants or vegetables)
- Meat, poultry, and wild game
- All grain, not only for man but for all beasts and fowls
- Every herb (vegetable) and every fruit in their season.
(Verses 4-9) This is the minimum commandment, and the one we seem to pay the most attention to. We tend to think of ourselves as perfect at keeping the Word of Wisdom if we don’t smoke or drink alcohol, tea, or coffee. We think it is a simple black-and-white commandment, cut-and-dried, just like tithing. But the Word of Wisdom has more to it than just avoiding tobacco and strong drinks, and we can’t expect to reap all of the blessings of the Word of Wisdom unless we keep the whole thing.
Joseph Fielding Smith: “Many a man thinks he keeps the Word of Wisdom who knows only the ‘don’ts…’” (Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:148).
(V. 10, 11, 14, 16, 17) Herein lies the higher law. We are to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables ("herbs"), and our staple foods should be grains, the "staff of life."
"The world's largest land mammals are strictly vegetarian, but in order to consume enough calories, many of them must spend much of their day eating. If we did that, we would have little time for education, the arts, or even religious practice. The cultivation of grains through agriculture, therefore, is the foundation of civilization in the history of the human race. Grains and other starchy plant foods provide significantly more calories than the typical vegetable or even fruit, allowing humans to satisfy their energy requirements in a much more efficient way. These foods can also be more easily stored away for us in times of cold or famine. Human civilization is not possible without the cultivation of grains" (Jane Birch, Discovering the Word of Wisdom, p. 34).
And we are to eat with "prudence and thanksgiving," virtues many of us in more affluent countries have completely neglected.
"To a significant degree, we [in the United States] are an overfed and undernourished nation digging an early grave with our teeth..." (Ezra Taft Benson, BYU address, quoted in Birch, p. 10).
(V. 12, 13, 15) Flesh should be eaten very sparingly, mainly just to save human life. It is pleasing to God that animals not be eaten if other things are available. In the U.S., there is never any longer a time of winter or famine, because of refrigeration and shipping, so a good case could be made that the Lord would prefer we eat a completely plant-based diet. It was a different story in Joseph Smith's day. There were frequent famine situations, and winter itself was a yearly famine. Meat could be preserved or animals could be hunted when plants were scarce, dormant, or unavailable. For example: handcart pioneers' lives were saved by eating buffalo when their food supply was gone. I believe the Lord is saying here that human lives are more important than animal lives, but animal lives are not to be wasted if other options are available.
But "Wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need" (D&C 49:20-21).
There is even more scientific evidence of this today. The damage animal foods can do to the human body has been clearly shown by the decades of research done by T. Colin Campbell, detailed in his eye-opening book, The China Study.
"Eating animal foods comes at a price since the nutrients in them are not packaged ideally for regular human consumption...they have 1) too much cholesterol (any is in excess of our need, because the human body produces it), 2) too much protein, hard for our kidneys and livers to process, and creating an acidic environment conducive to cancer growth, 3) too much fat, 4) too few vitamins and minerals, 5) too much iron, contributing to chronic illnesses, 6) no phytochemicals, 7) no carbohydrates, 8) no dietary fiber 9) too many hormones, both natural and artificial, 9) too many pollutants, pesticides, etc., because animals are further up the food chain and these become concentrated the higher up you go" (Birch, p. 16-17).
Verses 18-22 contain beautiful blessings. Gaining them requires adherence to the entire Word of Wisdom, the prescriptions (things we should eat) as well as the proscriptions (things we shouldn't ingest).
"Every modern society that has seen an increase in the amount of protein and fat in their diets has seen a concomitant rise in chronic illness of every kind" (Birch, p. 18).
Bill Beardall: “[When I was a missionary] years ago, the third missionary discussion talked about the Word of Wisdom…We would always try to get a commitment from the investigator to live the Word of Wisdom. When the investigators accepted this principle, they were able to understand subsequent discussions. Almost without exception, I found that if they had not started to live this important principle, they could not comprehend further growth in the gospel” (The Gospel Doctrine Class website).
Walk and not faint:
This promise implies endurance.
The destroying angel shall pass them by:
The Word of Wisdom offers protection from many terminal physical diseases.
President Heber J. Grant said, “[The Word of Wisdom] would solve the economic problems, not only of our country, but of every other country, if it were obeyed by the people of the world” (April 1936 General Conference).
How is this so? Addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs are terribly expensive, both in purchase cost, loss of income, and medical costs later on. And a reduction of animal products would save water, land, and other resources.
"It takes roughly 25 gal. of water to produce a pound of lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes or wheat, 49 gallons for a pound of apples, 815 gallons for a pound of chicken, 1,630 gallons for a pound of pork and a whopping 5,214 gallons of water for a pound of beef. You would save more water by not eating one pound of California beef than you would by not showering for six months......We could instead directly consume the food we feed the animals with much less cost to the environment and to our health...Not only could we feed ourselves, we'd have enough food left over to feed all of the world's poor" (Birch, p. 84).
If you have a disease that is weakening you, or if you need to be saved temporally from a physical injury or defect, the word of wisdom is designed most particularly for you! The promise doesn't apply to all "mankind," but specifically to those "who can be called saints"--in other words, those who are willing to rely upon Jesus Christ. If we ask for his grace to overcome our bad habits and create good ones, we will receive it. If we try to do it on our own, we may have difficulty succeeding.
My personal testimony of the Word of Wisdom has been greatly strengthened this year (2016-2017). Although I always considered myself to be keeping the Word of Wisdom perfectly because I didn't smoke or drink, a more careful, prayerful study and implementation of the revelation completely changed the direction of my life. I wondered why I was not enjoying the blessings of strength, speed and endurance, despite "perfectly" keeping the Word of Wisdom. I had suffered the effects of a debilitating, degenerative disease, Ankylosing Spondylitis, for 30 years, although I didn't get a proper diagnosis until this year. By the summer of 2016, I could hardly walk a block because of inflammation in my tendons, it hurt my arms just to hold a book, and the three hours of sitting at church were filled with back and hip pain.
As I have changed my diet to strictly contain only those foods recommended in the Word of Wisdom in their most wholesome forms, mobility, energy, digestion and immunity improved markedly. Muscle, joint, and headache pain dropped dramatically within a week. Morning stiffness completely disappeared. I have been able to avoid expensive arthritis drugs with unpleasant side effects. Today I can hike for an hour at a moderate pace, I have completely regained use of my left arm and my right is improved, and I have dropped a size in clothing while actually eating more food. As an added benefit, it's been easy and inexpensive to rebuild our food storage now that we do not rely on animal products and highly processed foods such as vegetable oils.
President Thomas S. Monson reminded us of the importance of the Word of Wisdom in October 2016 General Conference:
"In 1833 the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith a plan for healthy living. That plan is found in the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants and is known as the Word of Wisdom. It gives specific direction regarding the food we eat, and it prohibits the use of substances which are harmful to our bodies...
"May we care for our bodies and our minds by observing the principles set forth in the Word of Wisdom, a divinely provided plan. With all my heart and soul, I testify of the glorious blessings which await us as we do" (emphasis added).