Monday, October 19, 2009

Time for a Word of Wisdom Refresh?

As any LDS member who's taken part in a Word of Wisdom discussion in Sunday School knows, the correlation between prohibited items and health benefits are a little hazy these days. We're still on solid ground for one of the Big Four: tobacco. It looks like we really nailed that one. Except for the helping sick cattle oddity. However, the other Big Four are in a losing battle with scientific research.

Tea is widely heralded for its health benefits in all current research (something the Chinese have known for thousands of years). The only substance in tea with a potential downside - caffeine - is still widely consumed by many LDS members in diet soft drinks and hot/cold chocolate. A quick search on the Journal of American Medical Association's website produced these highlights on tea's healthfulness:
  • Habitual moderate strength green or oolong tea consumption, 120 mL/d or more for 1 year, significantly reduces the risk of developing hypertension in the Chinese population.
  • There is evidence of green tea as a cancer preventive for humans in other parts of Japan where quality green teas, "typical" as defined by the National Cancer Institute, are traditionally consumed.
  • Green tea consumption was inversely associated with mortality due to all causes and due to cardiovascular disease.
  • Habitual tea consumption, especially for more than 10 years, has significant beneficial effects on bone mineral density of the total body, lumbar spine, and hip regions in adults.
  • The theaflavin-enriched green tea extract we studied is an effective adjunct to a low-saturated-fat diet to reduce LDL-C in hypercholesterolemic adults and is well tolerated.

    Coffee fairs quite well in studies, showing a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes and benefits from the antioxidants found in coffee.

    Alcohol is a mixed bag. Clearly, there is a danger of abuse associated with alcoholism, and Joseph Smith was painfully aware of this as there are many reports of his father's abuse of alcohol during much of his life. However, nearly all recent medical studies show ample health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, especially red wine.

  • Journal of American Medical Association: The consumption of 2 alcoholic drinks or fewer per day was inversely associated with extensive coronary calcification. The risk of extensive coronary calcification was 50% lower in individuals who consumed 1 to 2 alcoholic drinks per day than in nondrinkers.
  • Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research: "The benefits of alcohol are all about moderation. Low to moderate drinking – especially of red wine – appears to reduce all causes of mortality. The breadth of benefits is remarkable – cancer prevention, protection of the heart and brain from damage, reducing age-related diseases such as inflammation, reversing diabetes and obesity, and many more."

    I believe it may be time for a Word of Wisdom doctrine refresher. It's clear we already do a substantial amount of picking and choosing of what's important, so maybe it's time to really have an overhaul of Section 89 to better represent more current health understandings. We could start by removing coffee and tea completely from the prohibitions. The idea that hot drinks create an imbalance of the humors in the body (the common wisdom of the 1830's) has been replaced by more sound understanding of how our bodies actually function.

    Instead of seeing this refresher as a negative comment on Joseph Smith, I think he should be applauded for providing a health code that took the best advice available at the time, and was delivered in the hopes of improving the health of the Saints. It should be emphasized that with changing times, comes more relevant information and we also now face some different health concerns.

    We'd certainly keep the prohibition on tobacco, but perhaps lessen the restrictions on alcohol to 'moderate consumption.' By most literal readings of D&C 89, moderate use of alcohol would be considered as approved, even though this use has been prohibited in more recent times. In sec 89, verse 17, we read, "Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain." Mild drinks from barley would universally be recognized as 'beer' both in the 1830's and today. Many Latter Day Saints continued moderate drinking of alcohol, including many leaders, until the early 1900's, when a much greater (and stricter) emphasis was placed on the Word of Wisdom.

    Now, I'm not just in favor of loosening the definitions of the Word of Wisdom, but also expanding it to include more recent dietary information. I think LDS members would be well-served if we added to the Word of Wisdom some guidance for the moderate consumption of sugars and fatty foods. These weren't real concerns in the 1800's, but today are the leading causes of health issues, as least in the U.S. Perhaps adding some support for regular exercise would be helpful as well. Those American frontier people certainly didn't have to worry about lack of exercise, but we're not pushing too many hand carts, or hand-sewing fields these days.

    It would also go a long way towards improving our health by actually emphasizing the restrictions placed on the eating of meats in the D&C. Verses 12 and 13 of DC 89 read, "Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine." Even though it's some of the clearest language in the entire section, the advice has always been completely disregarded.

    Don't be surprised if sometime in the near future you're asked to answer questions concerning sugar and meat consumption during a temple recommend interview, and receive a steely-glare from the Bishop who just yesterday saw you serving yourself a large Slurpee and three hot dogs at a 7-Eleven.
  • 41 comments:

    1. Considering how frequently secular scientific "wisdom" changes, I'll stick with what the Lord's chosen spokesmen tell us rather than relying on the fashionable philosophies of men. (Although I AM fervently hoping chocolate never achieves prohibited status!)

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    2. If I may proffer an interesting observation... I started drinking green tea a few years ago, due to the overwhelming health benefits it offers. I work amongst a number of fellow members who routinely utter judgment on less actives who partake of coffee, but I've noticed that Green Tea passes by them OK. I think perhaps the Green part of Green Tea confuses people into thinking it's herbal or something.

      Actually the biggest argument I've heard in favor of the WoW, and to justify those who obey the big 5, but are morbidly obese and unhealthy in every other possible way, is that it's a law of obedience, not of health. It's actually a fun one to try and get people to explain!!

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    3. F&A - I'm not really sure I follow you with how large scale, long-term scientific studies are lumped in with, 'philosophies of men." To think of the vast scientific advances of this century, or even the past twenty years is astonishing. I tried to be clear in pointing out that this need not be detracting from religious authority. I commend Joseph Smith for proposing a health standard (that at the time, was optional), with the most up-to-date understanding of his time. The items from the WoW were the commonly-held understanding of his time and mirrored other, existing institutions information, such as the American Temperance Society, also known as the 'Cold Water Society.' The Temperance Society had a very active chapter in Kirtland, and advocated for not drinking hot drinks, not using hard liquor or tobacco, and eating meat sparingly. These items should sound familiar to any LDS member.

      I find that it's no disrespect to Joseph Smith to say that it may be time to re-evaluate and update the Word of Wisdom to better comply with modern scientific understanding.

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      1. I think the phrase "Given for a principle with promise, adapted for the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints." is very instructive in understanding the purpose of the Word of Wisdom. Could a great many saints have a glass of wine a day and not become heavy drinkers? Sure. But for the weakest of saints to whom self control is an issue, this "revelation" was given. Better to protect the weak with a more restrictive code for all then to lessen the restriction for all and suddenly have to have wide spread 12 step programs within the church for those who become ensnared in these addictions. I think the WoW become more and more a commandment rather than an instruction in response to the craftiness of wicked men of the world who sought to enslave people to addictive substances in order to fill their coffers.

        And please lets not gloss over the fact that the Word of Wisdom is a REVELATION. It wasn't simply Joseph Smith writing up something nice for his wife. If it's a revelation, it comes from God. And God has his reasons, even if we don't fully understand them. Implying that we need to "update" the WoW for modern times seems to me to deny its divine origins and instead place it on Joseph Smith's well meaning but ignorant shoulders.

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    4. Urban - I've noticed the same observation. As LDS members are largely not educated at all in the varieties of tea (and most probably uncomfortable even with herbal teas), I doubt many would understand the difference between Green Tea, Black Tea and herbal teas.

      I also agree that when pressed on specifics, most people willingly fall back on 'obedience.' That seems a natural thing to do in a religious context where ambiguity exists.

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    5. Bishop,

      I hate to always be the voice of opposition, but I think it is important that we resist the temptation to change long held oddities, traditions, and beliefs in the church based upon conclusive information from the scientific community.

      Ever heard the saying…“give them an inch and they will take a mile”?

      If we utilize science (sound as it may be) to make adjustments to basic religious beliefs (i.e., the word of wisdom), what stops people from extending that logic to deeper religious, philosophical and historical Mormon beliefs? I mean, let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of science out there supporting fundamental Mormon beliefs…Unless you read FARMS.

      I heard an interesting quote the other day... *Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." I wonder if Doctor Nibley ever heard that one!?

      Sincerely,

      Monomo

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    6. Monomo - I hear you. I think it could be terribly hard to hold a position where your employer requires one position of opinion. I'm sure the FARMS guys aren't alone there, but it's certainly an extreme case, where not only would there be clear expectations, but after being a member of FARMS, where else would any of them every find other academic employment? I'm sure they're well aware of that. And, for all I know, are perfectly happy with that knowledge. Who knows.

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    7. A few scattered thoughts on this:

      1. First, one that i'm planning on posting to my own blog in the nearish future: The German-language missionary discussions, at least back in the 90s, specifically said that Schwartzentee 'black tea' was forbidden. Tee 'tea' wasn't the word used, since that would have forbidden Kräutertee 'herbal tea', which is a different category linguistically in German. Interestingly, though, so is Grünentee 'green tea'. I've wondered for a good while whether it's legit for German-speaking Mormons to drink green tea, but not for English-speaking Mormons.

      2. A number of other Latter Day Saint Movement groups read the prohibition on "strong" beverages as forbidding anything alcoholic that requires distillation—i.e., beer's okay, and most wines.

      3. It's worth remembering that the plain text of the Word of Wisdom says that Mormon-made sacramental wine is acceptable. There's gotta be a Mormon entrepreneur out there who sees a money-making opportunity in that.

      4. God seems to be into dietary restrictions without regard to whether it's a health thing or not. (Consider the prohibition on shellfish in the Mosaic code, and on meat sacrificed to idols in the early Xian church.) I think we've done ourselves a disservice by treating the WoW as a "health code"—it's not, it's a dietary restriction. Full stop.

      More blathering there than i'd intended. Sorry. I'll try to limit my testimonies to shorter bits in the future.

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    8. David - Very good points. Thank you for your insightful comments. I served a mission in Argentina, where it's a HUGE cultural thing to drink mate (a tea). Well, mate is loaded with stimulants including caffeine, but there's never been a prohibition for this type of tea either. So, I'm with you in that the WoW should be viewed much more as a specific dietary restriction where some of the restrictions are more cared about than others.

      I've found that most LDS do not even know the difference between green and black tea and that they're from the same plant, just prepared differently. I think many might even consider 'green tea' to be an herbal tea, although most likely avoiding any tea - just in case.

      On point #3, I'm afraid that cultural myth has effectively altered any accounts of acceptable wine use to really just grape juice. I've never heard a discussion about the early Saints actually using 'real' wine. The horror.

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      Replies
      1. Just for clarification, Mate is not "loaded with stimulants" as you claim. It has about 30 mg per 8 oz, roughly one-third the amount of caffeine than a cup of coffee. Source: http://www.livestrong.com/article/367447-yerba-mate-vs-coffee/

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    9. Bishop,

      Did you serve under Lorin Pace or Laird Snelgrove (or both)? I assume you served in Argentina somewhere around 1960 based on your years at BYU. It was a great time to take some time off to do the Lords work! Charlie (Laird—but his first name was Charles) was a friend of mine. I sure love his ice-cream. I thought it was a shame when he told me they were selling off the family business to Dreyers. Surely if you served under Charlie you knew his favorite flavor of ice cream. What was it? I always meant to ask him but never got the chance.

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    10. Monomo- There were quite a few missions in Argentina, even in the 60's. Unfortunately, Brother Laird was not my MP. Would have loved sampling his ice cream, although Argentina does a very good job in this area.

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    11. Great comments, but there'll be no changes to D&C 89 or its practice. Addiction, and the added expenses of it, are far too dangerous to a tithe-paying community than some minor loss to health in the long run.

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    12. @junk: Of course, there *have* been changes in the practice of the WoW over the years--for an overview, i'd suggest a perusal of Paul Peterson's 1972 MA thesis, "An historical analysis of the Word of Wisdom". (It was done at BYU, even! It's freely electronically available through the BYU library.) The WoW as we interpret it now isn't the way it's always been, not by a long shot.

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    13. Thanks, David for jumping in and pointing readers to a very interesting resource (Paul Paterson's Master's thesis on the WoW). For those suffering from insomnia, or those who really care about the history of the WoW, it's hard to beat.

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    14. Let me just say ONE MORE TIME...I love your guts! No matter what you've put in them...cuz I LOVE the way it makes your brain work. Sooooo with you...

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    15. Of course HOT chocolate is a "hot" drink, can I drink this? It would seem not since the original question posed by early Mormons was "does hot drinks INCLUDE coffee and tea?" Not "does hot drinks MEAN coffee and tea?"

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    16. You make an amazing assumption here that the word of wisdom is a health code. No where does it say that in D&C. Nor does it say that any of the substances listed are "bad". It says that some "are not for the belly", or that drinking strong drinks is "not good". But it never says that these things are bad for your health. The reason for the Word of Wisdom is given clearly in scripture:
      "Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation"

      So there you have it. Have the evil designs of conspiring men become more or less severe since the WoW was given?

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    17. I have thick blood according to doctors. (I actually had to take blood thinners BEFORE surgery!) My body makes inflamatory reactions to everything. Green tea treats these symptoms. I drink my green tea decafinated. Since I started, a side benefit is I no longer have kidney stones. I was given the okay in my temple interview and got my recommend. Because of discussions like this and the fact that my son-in-law yelled at me because I drink green tea, I hold a recommend but voluntarily stay out of the temple. If there was a healthy alternative to the tea that I could take, I would. Please, let me know what it is. Until then, I'll just suffer with guilt.

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    18. I am so saddened by this post and some of the comments here. I would invite each of you to pray fervently to understand D&C 89 & other scriptures it corresponds with, research the footnotes & references in the scripture, read "The Word of Wisdom, A Modern Interpretation" by John A. Widtsoe (which was approved & reapproved by 3 different prophets) - and STOP trying to change REVELATION. Holy cow, this is disturbing. Just goes to show the different levels of commitment to the gospel & our Savior. So sad.

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