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 time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I discussed healthy fats and vegetable oils. The evidence shows that the “healthy fats” needed for optimal health are found in whole foods. Vegetable oils, including olive oil and coconut oil are not whole foods and are not good for our bodies. They are the junk calories of the fats, just as refined sugars are the junk calories of the carbohydrates.
So far in this series, I have discussed two of the three main dietary pillars of the Word of Wisdom: (1) Wholesome plants are ordained for our constitution, nature, and use (D&C 89:10–11) and (2) Animal flesh should be eaten sparingly and preferably only in times of need (D&C 89:12–13). This week, I begin to address the third main pillar: (3) All grain is good and ordained to be the “staff of life” (D&C 89:14,16).
The Staff of Life
The following is one of my favorite injunctions in the Word of Wisdom:
All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life. . . . All grain is good for the food of man.” (D&C 89:14,16 emphasis added)
The “staff of life” means a “staple food.” What is a staple? According to Merriam-Webster, the word staple used as a noun means “the sustaining or principal element.” When used as an adjective, it means “principal, chief ” and “used, needed, or enjoyed constantly usually by many individuals.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, staple means “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption.”
According to the Word of Wisdom, the principal or chief element of our diet should be grains. Grains include grasses like wheat and rice, but corn and legumes (like beans, lentils, peas, and other pulses) can also be classified as grains.
I’ve been looking at this verse with a new perspective ever since I learned that a whole food, plant-based diet is also called a “starch-based diet” because the bulk of the calories come from starches. Since grains are the primary source of nutritional starch, a whole food, plant-based diet is a grain-based diet. This matches the wisdom of D&C 89:14 beautifully.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of a grain-based diet is not new with the Word of Wisdom. Dr. John McDougall notes that, “Throughout civilization and around the world, six foods have provided our primary fuel: barley, maize (corn), millet, potatoes, rice, and wheat.” Dr. McDougall explains:
All large populations of trim, healthy people, throughout verifiable human history, have obtained the bulk of their calories from starch. Examples of once thriving people include Japanese, Chinese, and other Asians eating sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and/or rice; Incas in South America eating potatoes; Mayans and Aztecs in Central America eating corn; and Egyptians in the Middle East eating wheat.
I love that the wisdom of Section 89 has withstood the test of time. It is nothing like a fad diet!
Why Are Grains so Important?
Why does it matter where we get our calories as long as they are wholesome foods? Allow me to explore one possible reason. As I mentioned, 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 for use in times of cold or famine. Human civilization is not possible without the cultivation of grains. They are, indeed, the “staff of life.” Food expert Harold McGee writes:
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of grains and legumes in the life of our species . . . [They] have played a crucial role in human nutrition and cultural evolution. . . . The culture of the fields made possible the culture of the mind.
What was true in the distant past is also true of the recent past. McGee observed the following in the early 1980’s:
[Grains] provide the bulk of the caloric intake for much of the world’s population: around 70% for Egypt and India, and near 80% in China, or between 2 and 3 times the average for the developed West. The cereals and legumes put together account for more than two thirds of the world’s dietary protein. Even the industrial countries are fed indirectly by the huge amounts of corn, wheat, and soybeans on which their cattle, hogs, and chickens are raised. When we learn that the cereals are members of the grass family, we find new significance in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s admonition, “All flesh is grass.”
Grains Are Under Attack
If you pay much attention to nutrition, you know many so-called experts are anti-carbohydrate and, often vehemently, anti-grain. Some go so far as to state that the human body has “no need” for carbohydrates. Wheat is almost always at the top of their hit list, notwithstanding the Lord declared “wheat for man” (D&C 89:17). When I hear experts rail against grain and wheat, I think of what Isaiah said, “Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay” (Isaiah 29:16).
It is common among low-carb and Paleo experts to declare the agricultural revolution a mistake, to insist that humans were never designed to eat grains and cereals, and that we can’t achieve optimal health while eating these foods. This contradicts history, science, and common sense.
Despite claims to the contrary, even Paleolithic peoples got the majority of calories from carbohydrates. And the ancestors of Paleolithic peoples were nearly complete vegetarians. We humans are agriculturalists, tilling the soil since the days of Adam and Eve (see Genesis 3:23). In the past, only small populations in non-typical outlying areas of the world have survived on a diet more heavy in animal foods; for them it was a necessity. Human bodies are able to adapt to a diet heavy in animal foods, but that has never been optimal, and no large population has ever done it without the introduction of widespread chronic illness.
The current “grain is bad” fad is too big of a topic to address here, but I plan to address it in a forthcoming article. Let me just mention a few salient points here. First, anyone is free to not consume any grain that does not agree with them. I’d even encourage that. Second, no one has “proven” that gluten or wheat or grains are “not good” for the general population. Third, the fact that the wheat has “changed” does not invalidate scripture. All foods have “changed” and will continue to change—something God clearly knew when he gave the Word of Wisdom to “all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:3, emphasis added).
What has “changed” much more dramatically than wheat (or any other grain) is the entire composition of the American diet. This dramatic change is much more responsible for the health problems people are experiencing than any changes in the grains themselves. It may also be that the poor quality of our diet causes some people to have problems digesting wheat or other grains. The answer is not to attack the grain, but to change the diet.
When the Staff of Life Gets Displaced
Only privileged people in the past, and we comparatively wealthy moderns today, have had the option to get the bulk of our calories from sources besides grains and other starches. Carbohydrates are not just the preferred fuel sources for our bodies; they are also the preferred fuel sources for our pocketbooks and waistlines.
In past civilizations, only the rich could get a disproportionate number of calories from either fat or protein, so only the rich got the associated chronic illnesses. Today, developed societies have grown wealthy enough to eat like the kings and queens of old, and so now the common man is also suffering and dying like the royalty of days gone by.
China is an example of a country that, until very recently, was largely protected from most Western chronic illnesses due to their starch-based diet. Many studies document their dramatically lower levels of chronic illness of all kinds. But over the past few decades, the average wealth of the Chinese has risen dramatically, allowing them to consume more meat, dairy, fat, and sugar, which have replaced starch and fiber. A large-scale study reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that while less than 1% of the Chinese population were diabetic in 1980, that number rose to 5.5% in 2000, 9.7% in 2007 and 11.6% in 2010. At even 11.6, China had one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, even comparable to the United States (11.3% in 2011).
If Not Grains, Then What Would Be the Staff of Life?
One of the problems with dispensing with grains as the “staff of life” is that some other food must take its place. As I’ve noted, fruits and veggies are simply too low in calories to fuel most lifestyles, much less large populations of people. What other sources could substitute as the staff of life? There are very few options: animal foods, naturally high-fat plant foods, and/or processed foods made from animals and plants. Here is why these options are far from ideal:
Animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs). I discuss some of the hazards of animal foods in the first three articles of this series. In addition, making animal foods the staff of life for the majority of people on earth is not sustainable, given the intense demand animal food production makes on our land, water, energy, and air. It is even less sustainable if we believe part of the solution to the health risks of factory-farmed animal food is to allow cattle and other animals to graze freely in open fields. But beyond all this, our Savior has asked us to eat animal flesh but sparingly and has told us it is “pleasing” to Him if we save it for times of need (D&C 89:12–13). Clearly if we do that, animal foods can’t be the “staff of life.”
Naturally high-fat plant foods. A handful of plant foods are very high in fat and thus very high in calories. These include nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, coconuts, and cacao. Yes, a few people could get enough calories from such foods (at the cost of a diet very high in fat), but this is clearly not a diet that can support a large number of people. The earth simply can’t produce enough of these types of foods at a cost that would sustain more than a fraction of the world’s population.
Processed foods from animals and plants. These include donuts, muffins, pizzas, fries, and all other foods high in refined sugar and/or oil. Yes, these foods supply “enough” calories, but this is obviously not a prescription for health.
Some low-carb and Paleo experts, who believe the agricultural revolution was a mistake and humans were never designed to eat grains, readily acknowledge that the earth cannot produce enough food to sustain the world’s population on the diet they recommend. To them, this is just a sad state of affairs. They know that only those who can afford it can eat what they consider an ideal diet for humans. They do not understand that caring for only the wealthy is not the Lord’s way (see D&C 49:20).
Clearly the Lord’s solution would be one that feeds not just the wealthiest people on earth, those who can afford any type or amount of food. The Lord’s solution would provide for all His children, including the poorest among us. Grains are a beautiful solution to sustain the world’s large and growing population because they provide a relatively high source of wholesome calories at a relatively low cost. And they can be stored (for not just days but for decades) for use in times of need. No wonder the Lord selected them to be the “staff of life.”
The Ideal Diet for Humans
Humans are designed to thrive on a starch-based (complex carbohydrate) diet, not a protein-based diet or fat-based diet. We are not primarily meat, dairy, egg, or even nut or seed eaters. We are not even designed to thrive on a primarily vegetable or fruit-based diet, raw or cooked, with or without green smoothies. Although most of us should consume a lot more raw fruits and vegetables, many people who “fail” on a vegetarian diet do so because they neglect to consume enough grains and then load up on other types of food that are not designed to be the staff of life.
While I do not doubt that certain individuals are sensitive to specific grains, and some are gluten intolerant or function best without wheat, the wholesale condemnation of grains goes against both human physiology and human history. The anti-grain rhetoric of low-carb, Paleo, and other anti-grain diets does not square with the Word of Wisdom. While non-Latter-day Saints have an excuse for being confused, we do not. We have been told by the best of sources, “All grain is ordained for the use of man . . . to be the staff of life” and “All grain is good for the food of man” (D&C 89:14,16, emphasis added).
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Next I plan to explore the consequences of displacing grain as the staff of life. In a future article, I will address the current critique of gluten, wheat and other grains.
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.
 “staff, n.1” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, June 2014).
 “staple” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2013).
 “staple, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary.
 John A. McDougall, “Excerpt from The Starch Solution,” February 2012, http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2012nl/feb/excerpt.htm.
 John A. McDougall, “Introduction to New McDougall Book—The Starch Solution,” February 2009, http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2009nl/feb/starch.htm.
 Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), 226.
 McGee, On Food and Cooking, 226–227.
 Most low-carb and Paleo proponents (along with some high profile vegetarians) are strongly anti-grain. The books Wheat Belly by William Davis and Grain Brain by David Perlmutter are just two recent examples. According to Davis, “Wheat is the most destructive thing you could put on your plate, no question.” Contrast this with what the Lord tells us in D&C 89.
 John A. McDougall, The Starch Solution (New York: Rodale, 2012), 6–10.
 Rob Dunn, “Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians,” Scientific American, July 23, 2012.
 One excellent example is T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study: Revised and Expanded Edition: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health (Dallas: Benbella, 2016). The work done in China is just one feature of the book.
 Yu Xu, et al., “Prevalence and Control of Diabetes in Chinese Adults,” Journal of the American Medical Association 30, no. 9 (September 4, 2013): 948–958.
 Loren Cordain, “The Paleolithic Diet – Pros And Cons In The 21St Century.” Interview with Kirk Hamilton on Prescription2014.com (January 21, 2011). In answer to the question, “How are you going to feed the world on your diet?” Cordain (one of the foremost experts on the Paleo diet) replied, “You know I’ve never said I’m gonna feed the world on my diet. . . . unfortunately we have walked down a road for which there is no return. And that’s exactly what we’ve done when we decided to become agriculturists. We cannot feed 7 billion people on the planet on the diet that we are genetically adapted to and that’s unfortunate.”