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.
In Part I of “The Flesh of Beasts,” I examined the Lord’s counsel in D&C 89:12–13 of the Word of Wisdom. In these verses the Lord does not command us to give up animal foods (so relax, dear readers!), but He does ask us to use them sparingly and further states that it is “pleasing” to Him if we do not use them except in times of need: winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger. Clearly, this advice is counter to what many of us believe is true of a healthy diet. In this article I will examine why the Lord would counsel us to rely on plant foods for our nutrition.
Don’t We Need Animal Foods to Be Healthy?
Why would the Word of Wisdom instruct us to avoid animal flesh as a featured part of our diet if, as we are taught, animal foods are an important part of a balanced meal? Where can we get the nutrients to be healthy and strong if we don’t regularly consume meat? Aren’t there certain nutrients we must get from animal foods in order for our bodies to function optimally? Aren’t meat and dairy two of the important food groups?
One reason we ask these questions comes from a primary cause of our confusion over animal foods: it is in the financial interest of a great many people to convince us that animals foods are good for our health, or at the very least, to make us believe the evidence against them is not strong. Nothing could be further from the truth! The Lord has even told us that the counsel in the Word of Wisdom is a warning given in consequence of those who try to take advantage of us for their own interests (see D&C 89:3).
The science of nutrition is clearly in its infancy. There is more we don’t know than what we do know. Fortunately, the science is clear enough on the fundamentals, on all those aspects of diet and nutrition that can enable the vast majority of us to eat in a way that will support our optimal health and weight. But we need to rely on the counsel given us in D&C 89 to sort fact from fiction.
The human body must have fuel to provide the energy needed for survival. Three macronutrients can provide energy: lipids (fats), proteins, and carbohydrates. In addition, micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are vital for a host of bodily functions on every level. So, we rely on both macronutrients and micronutrients for our health, and these we must get from our food. But it is this next fact that was surprising to me, though clearly it is the basis of any sound understanding of nutrition: plants (not animals) are the source of all of the essential macro and micronutrients the human body needs.
Food science expert Harold McGee explains:
Unlike animals, plants can synthesize organic materials from the minerals, air, and sunlight, and so they are the true origin of the proteins, carbohydrates, and other complex molecules necessary to animal life.
Plants are the original source of all the dietary nutrients needed by our bodies:
- All the essential amino acids that combine to form protein.
- All the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6).
- All carbohydrates (the human body’s preferred fuel source).
- All the required vitamins or building blocks needed to produce the vitamins (except vitamins B12 or D, neither of which is created by plants or animals).
- All the essential minerals (which plants absorb from the soil).
In addition, plants provide a rich abundance of other nutrients that produce optimal human health. For example,
- Phytochemicals, including antioxidants (thousands of phytochemicals function in various ways to fight disease and maintain health in our bodies).
- Fiber (essential for bodily functions, eliminating toxins, and healthy weight).
- Water (next to oxygen, the most essential element to life; food high in water helps cleanse the body and maintain healthy weight).
Not only do plants provide the nutrients needed for optimal health, they naturally provide these nutrients in the proportions needed by our bodies. Given the total number of calories required to build and fuel our bodies, we need no more than 10 percent of our calories from protein  and no more than 10 percent of our calories from fat , and most of us require even less. If we consume no animal foods and mostly low-fat whole plant foods, almost any plant-based diet (aside from an all-fruit diet) would still consist of at least 10 percent protein and 10 percent fat. In others words, assuming we are getting an adequate number of calories, plants naturally contain all of the proteins and fats we require for optimal health, without our having to go to special lengths to make sure we are getting enough in the right combinations.
Plants are perfect for our bodies! No wonder they are ordained of God for the “constitution” and “nature” of His children (D&C 89:10).
A Backup Source of Nutrition
If plants provide all that is needed to not only sustain human life but also to optimize our health, what is the role of animal flesh in our diet? Like us, animals get their essential nutrients from plants. Even the carnivorous animals at the top of the food chain ultimately depend totally on plant foods, as plants are the beginning of the food chain. But like us, most animals can get all the nutrients they need for optimal health from a vegetarian diet. The largest land mammals on the planet are all herbivores. We are talking about elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippopotamuses, and water buffalo; these astonishingly huge creatures eat only plants! Humans are omnivores; we can get our nutrients from both plants and animals, but animal foods are completely optional for human nutrition. The fact that plants alone can nourish the largest, strongest animals should help us understand how an all-plant diet can grow and maintain our much smaller human bodies.
As animals eat plants, vital nutrients become part of their bodies. Therefore, in times of necessity, when we humans can’t get enough plants to sustain life (for example, in times of famine or excess cold when plants are scarce), we can eat animals as a backup source of nutrition. They have enough of the essential nutrients in their bodies, along with the needed calories, to sustain our lives in times of need.
Getting Our Nutrients from Animal Foods Comes at a Price
In times of need, we can get the nutrients we need by eating animal foods, but this comes at a price since the nutrients in them are not packaged ideally for regular human consumption. For example, when we get our nutrients from animal foods, they come with:
- Too much cholesterol (the human body produces all the cholesterol we need to function optimally, so any animal cholesterol is in excess of our needs and can be detrimental to our health).
- Too much protein (extra animal protein forces our livers and kidneys to work harder to process the excess, increases the acid load in our bodies, and creates an environment more conducive to cancer growth).
- Too much fat (and usually the wrong types of fat—saturated fat instead of the healthier unsaturated fats, like omega 3).
- Too few of most essential nutrients: vitamins and minerals. Too much of some nutrients (like iron, which is more easily absorbed when packaged in animal foods, contributing to various chronic illnesses)
- No phytochemicals (“phyto” means plants; they help us maintain health).
- No carbohydrates, aside from lactose (100 percent of calories in meat come from protein and fat).
- No dietary fiber (a lack of fiber in the diet promotes constipation and fatigue and diminishes healthy gut bacteria).
- Too many hormones, antibiotics, etc. (both natural hormones and drugs given to animals to make them grow fast and keep them from getting sick).
- Too many pollutants, microbes, pesticides, herbicides, etc. (these get concentrated in animal foods because they are higher-up on the food chain).
Plants contain all the advantages with none of these disadvantages. In short, animal foods are in no way more ideal for the human body than plant foods, but they are a good backup source of nutrition. Perhaps this is one reason the Lord ordained the flesh of animals for our “use” under certain conditions, but He did NOT ordain them for the “constitution” or “nature” of our bodies as are plants! (Study the difference between verses 10 and 12 in D&C 89.)
In our society, we grow up believing animal foods are essential and even healthy. This makes us happy because we enjoy the taste of these rich foods. It makes the meat and dairy industry happy because they profit handsomely from our consumption of them. Unfortunately, a diet based on animal foods is one source of much of the physical illness in our society, because animal foods are not designed as the primary fuel for our bodies. Eating them on a regular basis is not healthy for us (not to mention the animals!).
If you are intrigued by these ideas, I encourage you to study the evidence. My top recommendations are, in this order:
- Book: The China Study by T. Colin Campbell
- DVD: Forks Over Knives (Netflix, Amazon, etc.)
- Website: Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s free articles and videos
- More Whole Food, Plant-Based Resources
Without Animal Foods, What Would We Eat?
We’ve become accustomed to animal foods. They are often the center of every meal. We can’t imagine how we’d eat day-to-day without them. What in the world would we eat instead?
Allow me to introduce you to four new food groups:
- Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
- Whole Grains
Find some good recipes, which may add flavorful herbs and spices, and this is all that is needed for healthy, colorful, delicious meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yes, your taste buds may not be used to eating food like this at first, but we are all designed to love these whole foods, and once your taste buds adjust, I promise you you’ll LOVE the food. And you’ll feel great.
Take a minute to check out a few of the hundreds of recipes you can find on-line:
Try a new recipe or two every week. Think about how you can modify some of the foods you already enjoy to make them both “whole food” (little to no processed foods) and plant-based (no animal foods). It is much easier than you think! I know because I started this adventure with zero cooking skills, and now I find I can prepare delicious whole food, plant-based meals every day with very little time or effort. I hear the same story from many others who have taken the plunge. I have not (and will never) “forbid” anyone from eating animal foods—they are ordained of God , but I do invite you to take the plunge into plant-based eating!
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Next time on Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I’ll address the question everyone asks: “If we don’t eat meat, how will we get our protein?” In addition, I’ll explore the question of whether it is ever a good idea to eat animal foods.
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.
 Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), 123.
 Vitamin D requires sunlight, and Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria. B12 is found in most animal foods, but it is largely absent from our plant foods, partly due to modern sanitation. Current science suggests that people who abstain from all animal foods should take a B12 supplement. People who do not get enough sunlight to produce enough Vitamin D should also consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
 T. Colin Campbell, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (New York: BenBella Books, 2013), 254.
 Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, Keep It Simple, Keep It Whole: Your Guide to Optimum Health (Los Angeles: Exsalus Health & Wellness Center, 2009). See chapter 8, “Protein” and chapter 11, “Fats and Oils.”
 We should not forbid others from using meat (see D&C 49:18). The Lord does not forbid us from using meat, but He does say that it is “pleasing” to Him if we don’t use the flesh of animals when it is not needed. While we are not commanded to do this, we can read the scriptures ourselves and reap blessings as we try to do those things that are pleasing to our Savior. The blessings of the Word of Wisdom are very clear, and I hope more of us will desire to seek them. We need these blessings!