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).
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.
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?