This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom in Meridian Magazine.
Last week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I explored the verses in D&C 89 that discuss wholesome herbs and every fruit. Webster’s Dictionary helps us understand that these words refer to all the amazing plants God has ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). I noted that the word “wholesome” means health-promoting and suggested that processed plant foods may not qualify as “wholesome herbs” because they have been stripped of many of their nutrients.
In this week’s article, I will be exploring the relationship between processed foods and food addiction. (I’ll be addressing the biological process of how our bodies deal with food, but it is important to recognize the powerful emotional component of food addiction. I’ll not be addressing that issue, but I’ll cite a website with helpful advice and resources.)
The Problem with Concentration
Aside from a loss of some nutrients, why would a food be any less good for our bodies just because it is highly processed? One reason is that when food is processed, not just useful nutrients, but also health-promoting fiber and water are usually taken out. Any naturally occurring or added sugar, salt, and fat become more concentrated in the food—as a percentage of volume and/or 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.
This is important because one of the main purposes and benefits of the Word of Wisdom is helping us be free of addictions of all kinds. We see this clearly in the prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, and abusing drugs, but this applies to the rest of the counsel as well. Addictions fuel unhealthy behavior and inhibit the reception of the Spirit of God. Elder Boyd K. Packer tells us, “Addiction has the capacity to disconnect the human will and nullify moral agency.” Our Savior wishes us to be free and not enslaved to any stimulation, whether it be substances or behaviors, such as drugs, sex, media, gambling, or the foods we eat.
Rich Foods are Addicting
I’d like to share some interesting research that explains the impact of rich processed foods and why it is almost impossible for us to maintain a healthy weight when they are a significant part of our diet. Below I summarize some of the important points made by Doug Lisle and Alan Goldhamer in The Pleasure Trap, but the entire book is worthwhile.
There are scientific explanations for why drug addicts have such a hard time quitting the habit. Our bodies are biologically designed to seek pleasure. Illicit drugs and substances like alcohol and tobacco artificially produce intense feelings of pleasure that are self-reinforcing. Not just people but also animals will abandon common sense and their own well-being to seek and obtain drugs. The feelings of pleasure are so intense and desirable that people will consume them for their short-term pleasure even though they lead to long-term unhappiness and ruin.
Highly processed, calorically dense foods trigger similar pleasure signals in our brains. Foods rich in fat and sugar, though certainly not as harmful as illegal drugs, are physically addictive through precisely the same biological mechanisms. Like drugs, sugary sweets, high-fat foods, and even meat and cheese stimulate an increased release of dopamine, the brain’s primary pleasure-producing chemical. Not only does this mechanism produce immediate pleasure, we are biologically disposed to seek more of it. Animals are the same. Rats will choose cocaine over food, even to the point of their own starvation, and they will likewise ignore healthy food when junk food is available to gorge themselves on.
The food industry knows how to produce products that are intensely pleasurable and that will motivate us to purchase them again and again. They are, after all, in the business of earning money, not safeguarding our health. Even when these products are potentially very damaging to our health, we too often abandon common sense and our own well-being by continually consuming these foods. A diet filled with yummy nutritionally poor food nurtures a low-grade addiction, similar in some respects to drugs. And like drugs, they provide short-term happiness that can rob us of long-term joy.
Rich Foods Trick Our Biological Triggers
There are triggers in our bodies that are biologically designed to help us eat the right amount of food each and every day. They are designed to tell us when we need more food and when we have had enough. The same is true for animals. Even if animals have access to huge food resources, they do not consistently overeat, and it is not because they are good at counting calories! Unlike pets fed by humans, we don’t find obese animals living in the wild.
So why do we humans overeat? Why aren’t our biological triggers working? One reason is that the foods we eat are so unnatural that our bodies have not adapted to them. All-important fiber, nutrients, and water have been taken out. Additional fat, sugar, and salt are added. Under these circumstances, our bodies are not able to accurately detect and tell us when we have had enough to eat. So, we continue to consume calories beyond the point that is good for us.
Just as importantly, we are driven to further consumption due to the pleasure signals the food triggers in us. We humans naturally seek pleasure, and if the effort to obtain that pleasure is small (as it is in today’s world), we are likely to seek much more of it. Of course, we do not always get ever-increasing pleasure from food with further consumption. Our tastes adapt to the richness of the food, and the level of pleasure decreases, driving us to seek even more intensely rich foods.
The Pleasure Trap
As long as we succumb to the quick and easy pleasure that comes from high-fat, high-sugar processed foods, we will eat more of it than is good for us, becoming increasingly overweight and unhealthy. This is the “pleasure trap”—our natural biological drive to seek pleasure leads us to a life that can be very unhappy and even miserable. We’ve traded long-term happiness for short-term pleasure.
All addictions (drugs, sex, gambling, or food) trade long-term happiness for short-term reward. Any addict knows it is hard to restrict oneself to “just a little bit.” If we eat only small portions of intensely pleasurable foods, we are left unsatisfied because we know there is a lot more easy pleasure we are forgoing. Small portions can also leave us hungry, and hunger is a much more powerful drive than the average human willpower. So, we are trapped between feeling intensely unsatisfied or eating much more than our bodies need. No wonder most Americans grow increasingly overweight (and sick) as they age!
Of course we don’t have the option to stop eating. Everyone must eat. The only permanent way out is to eat the foods our bodies are designed to consume: whole foods. These foods, though they are delicious, do not produce the same intense pleasure signals that drive us to eat out of control. When we consume naturally low-fat, low-sugar whole foods, the biological triggers in our bodies work correctly to let us know when we need to eat and when we are satisfied.
A whole food, plant-based diet permanently removes us from the pleasure trap by fully satisfying the powerful drive to consume food while achieving and then maintaining proper weight and good health. And it does this without the need to count carbs, points, or calories! This is true freedom!
How Could We Give up the Foods We Love?
If it seems impossible to give up the rich, intensely yummy foods we have come to enjoy, that is the very point: have we allowed these foods to have more control over us than we have over them?
You may be asking yourself: Hasn’t God given us food so we can have “in abundance” (D&C 49:19)? Doesn’t He want us to enjoy life and have fun? How can you enjoy life if you don’t indulge in all these amazingly yummy foods? But think: as Latter-day Saints, we know all about sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term happiness. We know all about the deceptive line of thinking we should “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die[t]” (2 Ne. 28:7). We aren’t fooled into indulging in improper sex, gambling, or drugs because we deserve to have “fun.” That is not the abundant life God wants for us. His eternal plan of happiness is much more than enjoying short-term “fun.”
How do you know if you are addicted to something? It isn’t easy to tell because we don’t like to admit addiction to ourselves. But in my experience it is very easy to tell what foods I am NOT addicted to, even if they are foods I enjoy eating. If the thought of giving up a particular food is distressing to us, it may be that we’re too dependent on it.
Fortunately, as God’s children, we are made to enjoy the wholesome plant foods He designed for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10). When you change your diet, your taste buds will change! Even if you hate vegetables, beans, or grains now, you can love them in the future if you are willing to clean out your diet of the processed foods you are used to and eat only plant foods that are “wholesome.”
Giving up addictive foods is not something you have to do on your own. As you turn to God and to His food plan in the Word of Wisdom, you will receive strength from beyond to break free of any addiction and embrace the foods that will return you to health, vitality, and the proper weight.
“Let It Alone Until You have Learned the Truth”
Is there any doubt that junk foods are addictive in a way that spinach and strawberries are not? I don’t feel I’m going out on a limb when I suggest that potato chips don’t qualify under “wholesome” plants. And this undoubtedly applies to many other modern foods, even if they are not spelled out in Section 89. Elder Boyd K. Packer warned:
There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the [Word of Wisdom].
When asked why the Lord does not give us further guidance on the many different drinks and foods not specifically addressed in the Word of Wisdom, President Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
Such revelation is unnecessary . . . If we sincerely follow what is written with the aid of the Spirit of the Lord, we need no further counsel . . . we are promised inspiration and the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord through which we will know what is good and what is bad for the body, without the Lord presenting us with a detailed list separating the good things from the bad. . . .
A safe guide to each and all is this: If in doubt as to any food or drink, whether it is good or harmful, let it alone until you have learned the truth in regard to it.
Yes, it is true, for example, that the Word of Wisdom “does not mention the use of caffeine.” It doesn’t need to. If we have learned from personal experience or research that a substance is not good for us, it doesn’t need to be spelled out. If we are concerned only about obeying the narrow definition of the Word of Wisdom, we know the bishop will not ask us whether we consume caffeine, doughnuts, meat, or other junk foods, but if we want better health, we had better seek the “inspiration and the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord” as we study the Word of Wisdom.
Stories of people overcoming food addictions: Scott Zimmerman, “I am a food addict” and Winona Davies, “I am awed at how the ‘destroying angel’ has passed me by again and again.”
Whole food, plant-based guidelines: Guidelines for an Optimal WFPB Diet
More help for Overcoming Food Addiction.
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Most of us would agree that highly processed, refined plant foods are not as wholesome as more unprocessed plant foods. But what about the wide assortment of vegetable oils, including the ever-popular extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil? Why aren’t these considered wholesome? The answers may surprise you!
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.
 Jeff Novick, “A Date With Disaster: The Pleasure Trap of Whole Natural Foods” (June 27, 2012).
 Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation In A Changing World,” Ensign (October 1989): 14–15.
 Douglas J. Lisle and Alan Goldhamer, The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & Happiness (Summertown, TN: Healthy Living, 2003). See also 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).
 Michael Greger, “Changing Our Taste Buds” (2 minute video) on NutritionFacts.org (September 9, 2013).
 Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Word of Wisdom,” Improvement Era (February 1956): 78–79.
 Body K. Packer, “The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises,” Ensign (April 1996): 17.
 Newsroom, “Mormonism in the News: Getting It Right,” August 28, 2012.