When people think about the relationship between food and the gospel in the context of the Church, often the first thing they think of is the Word of Wisdom, said Zachary Cordell, a registered dietician nutritionist, during a presentation at BYU Education Week.
When it comes to the Word of Wisdom, people often focus on what they aren’t supposed to do, because it is easier to remember the things that say “don’t” in front of them.
“But there are ways that we can use our understanding of the gospel and the doctrines and the culture and the environment (of the Church) … to help us have healthier behaviors,” Cordell said. Health isn’t just about what people shouldn’t do, it’s also about what they can do.
In the BYU Education Week course titled “Recognizing Our Doctrinal and Cultural Relationship between Faith and Physical Health” on Wednesday, Aug. 21, on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, Cordell highlighted three main influencers that connect food and physical health to the gospel for Latter-day Saints.
First, there are doctrinal influences, he said. This includes the Word of Wisdom, but also includes gospel teachings like the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the eternal perspective that all people are children of God.
Second, there is the culture that comes from being part of a church and a faith community. Many of the ways that people relate to food and health are heavily influenced by their culture, he said.
The third influencer is a person’s environment. Where people are located and what people surround them, as well as factors like income and food availability, are going to have an impact on how people view their health, Cordell explained.
During his presentation, Cordell broke down some of the key parts of each of these influencers and how they can be used to help members of the Church improve their physical health based on their understanding of the gospel and its role in their lives.
In the Word of Wisdom, there is a list of things that Latter-day Saints are told not to consume. But there are also some instructions about what people should eat and how they should approach their overall relationship with food. One of the first things the Word of Wisdom says about food is that grains are good and meant for mankind to consume.
“Carbs are not the devil,” Cordell said, laughing and noting that some of the modern health trends claim as much. Plants are an important part of the human diet and meat should be used sparingly, he continued.
One of the last things it mentions is the importance of using “prudence and thanksgiving” in all things related to health.
In addition to the Word of Wisdom, the doctrine of the gospel gives Latter-day Saints an understanding that all people were created in the image of God.
“We believe that nothing is beyond God’s power and that we can do all things through Christ,” Cordell said. “And if we believe that we will have perfected resurrected bodies, then that might shape how we’re going to view health, just a little bit different.”
Keeping the perspective that one’s body is eternal can be a positive influence on how one views their health, he said.
Additionally, an understanding that Christ’s Atonement is about more than just overcoming sin can help a person develop more self-love, self-gratitude, and more respect for their body and health.
“The Atonement allows us to break down the boxes we put ourselves in,” he said. “That was the point of the Atonement — that we can grow.”
Once a person understands how the Atonement applies to them in all things, they won’t get stuck in a rut of thinking they can never change or that being healthy is too hard. It provides a way to overcome those barriers, he said.
The health concept “healthy at every size” is similar to a principle shared by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a recent general conference talk that encouraged people to “lift where you stand,” Cordell said.
“It’s the principle that regardless of (your circumstances), you should do healthy things,” he said. Regardless of what health challenges a person faces, whether they are overweight or have health challenges like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, doing healthy things is going to make a person healthier, starting from where he or she is.
As part of a culture of faith, Latter-day Saints understand that each person is striving to become like Christ — to become perfect. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles even titled a general conference talk “Be Ye Therefore Perfect.” But there is a caveat in that talk that is important, Cordell said.
“The caveat is ‘someday,'” he said. No one is expected to be perfect now or even in this lifetime.
“The idea is that we are progressing. We are learning, and we are growing. … You’re going to continue to mess up. It’s the same thing with our health. It’s a choice that we make … about what we want to do and who we want to be.”
The gospel, in its doctrine, culture and environment — wherever that may be — can be used to help each individual better understand their bodies, their health, and how to keep growing and improving.
Although the facts of a person’s circumstances and their cultural and environmental influencers may mean that they are overweight, have limited access to fresh food, were raised with bad eating habits, or any number of other factors, that doesn’t mean they are destined to be unhealthy, Cordell said.
“The nice thing is that we have the agency to choose what we do with those influencers,” he said. All people are children of God, he continued, and that means all things are possible through Christ.