Protecting Your Family: Proscriptions vs Prescriptions

In a recent post I wondered out loud about the Word of Wisdom, whether the greater benefit might come from the proscriptions or the prescriptions.  By proscriptions I mean the prohibition against tobacco, alcohol, and hot drinks (defined as coffee and tea).  The prescriptions would mean the counsel to build our diet on vegetables, whole grains, fruits, plus a sparing amount of meat.  This basically rules out the modern American Diet (MAD).

The Proscriptions

Because this became an issue—as reflected in reader comments. which I take seriously—I should share my thinking.  I’ve noted before these longevity benefits from things prohibited:

  • Tobacco use is linked to about 400K painfully premature deaths each year in the US.  I was in Santa Monica yesterday and drove by the billboard where the current (estimated) death toll is displayed and it appeared we would pass 400K by year-end.  If the number ticks upwards while you’re watching—symbolic of a death—it leaves a sad feeling.  Though the use of cigarettes has declined, the effects are still with us.
  • Alcohol has been catastrophic to those addicted and is also the cause of many premature deaths.  I have seen estimates between 40K and 80K in the US, so though lower than tobacco-related deaths, it’s still a plague on our country.
  • Coffee/Tea don’t have a specific death toll that I’ve ever seen.  I believe the greater harm is that these hot drinks displace normal meals, like breakfast.  A classic example of poor nutrition is the common practice of having a coffee and pastry for breakfast, rather than eating real food.  Because this gives a short-lived burst of energy, you’ll need more of the same by mid-morning.  The rise of these hot drinks in Europe was associated with the rise of sugar as a dietary staple—a rise that has not yet abated and takes a terrible toll.  It's also a fact that these products were originally produced with slave labor.

In sum, if the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom had been followed by all in the US, perhaps as many as 500K premature deaths would have been prevented.  This is an incredible benefit.

The Prescriptions

So how many deaths would be prevented if we followed the prescriptions of the Word of Wisdom?  Mike Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, commented on the pioneering work in the ‘30s of Dr. Weston Price.  Dr. Price, a dentist turned researcher, wanted to identify the cause of a new and fast rising medical problem—tooth decay.  His theory correctly posited that cavities were a result of the modern diet.  He visited indigenous people who ate diets of traditional foods and compared the decay and health of their teeth to those of their cousins who had moved to the cities and were eating modern, refined foods.  Despite the wide variety of natural diets—he visited Eskimos, Polynesians, American Indians, Europeans, etc.—Dr. Weston found about a 100-fold greater incidence of tooth decay and diseased teeth in those eating the modern diet vs. their cousins eating traditional foods.  Tooth decay and malformed teeth (think of the modern need for orthodontics) are one of the first results of the MAD dietary.

Mr. Pollan’s observation was that the human body can prosper on a wide variety of natural foods but there is one diet that it can’t tolerate for long—the MAD, meaning the modern American diet supplied by Food Inc.  Well, the W of W is an inspired antidote to the MAD; it stands squarely opposed to the over-processed food-like products of Food Inc

So what is the estimated US death toll from the MAD?  We can only estimate it by looking at the chronic diseases linked to the MAD.  Here is a summary provided by the CDC:

  • CHD (heart disease) 527K deaths per year,
  • Cancer 444K,
  • Obesity 247K,
  • Stroke 121K,
  • Diabetes 58K.

If you sum up the toll of premature deaths you get 1,397K—well over a million deaths from just the five leading causes.  Now there are other risk factors for premature death besides the MAD.  Physical inactivity is an important cause—we have four Healthy Changes directed at the need for exercise.  Lack of vitamin D—which mainly comes from the sun—is another factor.  There are also inherited issues that affect our susceptibility.


But here’s the conclusion:  If you want to make a horseback estimate, a reasonable person might find that twice as many lives would be saved—meaning prolonged—by following the prescriptions as by following the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom. 

Fortunately you don’t have to choose—if you’re wise enough to do one, you’re smart enough to do the other.  The W of W is pretty good medicine and it’s simple enough for the humblest of people to follow.  God does look after those who heed His word. 

Please comment:  Please add your thoughts to this discussion.  Have we missed the most important benefit of the Word of Wisdom by not paying equal attention to the dietary counsel?

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Reader Comments (8)

I don't think it's a popular thought in current LDS culture, or at least North Amercian LDS culture, but I do think we are doing ourselves a great disservice by not giving as much attention to the prescriptions of the WoW as we do the proscriptions. They are both critical to good health and I wish they were a larger part of the WoW discourse in our current curriculum. I think "less healthy" eating may be a way to compensate for our abstinence from other social norms like social drinking. We don't gather at bars or have wine and cheese tasting parties, but we sure know how to party with foods that are short on the veggies and whole grains and long on the animal products and refined sugars and flours. I think it's how we define fun and good eating.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

Hi Sabrina

Nice to hear from you. I agree with your thoughts about the LDS food culture. Mormon people are known for avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and coffee. But we're even more addicted to sugar, refined foods, soda drinks (diet or regular) than the general population. I think it's up to the members to join other like-minded people in defining a better food culture—it's the heart of the food reformation. Best to you.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I agree; it's frustrating to go to church gatherings or even church on Sunday and have my kids come out with really unhealthy foods. It kind of baffles me that the LDS culture as a whole hasn't caught onto the diet thing yet. I loved how Elder Scott mentioned diet in his April conference talk; he talked about how every man's time is appointed but our quality of life and ability to serve will be greatly improved depending on our diet (this is from my memory and may not be completely accurate ;)

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Skip, thanks for this great follow-up post.

I cannot discount how important it is to follow the proscriptions, but I have come to believe that the prescriptions definitely need more focus in our lives. Excellent health seems so very out of reach in our society right now, and as an almost 40-something with six children, I feel strongly that I need to teach them the importance of healthy living so that they can largely avoid the health issues I'm struggling with. I think that teaching the next generation these truths is vital, but it can only really be accomplished if the adults in their lives actually model those habits and behaviors.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervalena

Hi Lindsey

I checked the April 2012 General Conference speech by Elder Scott and this is what he said:

"On the other hand, spiritual communication can be enhanced by good health practices. Exercise, reasonable amounts of sleep, and good eating habits increase our capacity to receive and understand revelation. We will live for our appointed life span. However, we can improve both the quality of our service and our well-being by making careful, appropriate choices."

I read in this encouragement to pay more attention to healthy eating habits. It's notable that this came in a talk about receiving inspiration. Best to you.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I share the same frustration. My husband and I have recently been called to be Primary teachers and snacks are always expected! I am of the "no food in church" mindset thanks to my dad's rule when he was bishop. I know all too well the messes that bringing snacks to church cause. Plus, we have a baby, and we need to carry too much to church without bringing food.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Anderson

This is a timely topic for me, since I just taught a Relief Society lesson about the Word of Wisdom....and it is so inspired! Who would have thought 150+ years ago that people would need to be told to eat their veggies? To eat whole grains? To eat fruit? Most people just want to talk about the proscribed things--stuff they already know!--rather than focus on what we're encouraged to do. But, alas, I feared the lesson becoming my soapbox, so I tread lightly.
I found it interesting that the W of W was "adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints..." (D&C 89:3). This is the bare minimum we should be doing--I think it takes serious thought and counsel with the Lord to figure out what more we should be doing to be taking care of these temples He's given us to house our spirits. Thanks for sharing your research of what else we might be doing to care for our bodies! (and now I will step down from the soapbox...)

October 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAli

This is really very impressive post i have learned more from here, thanks for sharing.

July 9, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersonam sharma

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