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How you should — or shouldn't — interpret the Word of Wisdom, according to one BYU professor

Benjamin Bikman described a scene likely familiar to many Latter-day Saints: being gathered around a table of ice cream and brownies, with one person offering a prayer asking for the food to "bless us with health and strength."

"While I firmly believe Heavenly Father has a sense of humor, this may be pushing it a little too far," he said.

Bikman, a Brigham Young University professor of physiology and development biology, spoke on his research on diabetes and insulin resistance during a July 17 BYU forum at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. He also tied the research to Church members' perceptions of the Word of Wisdom and spoke on making healthy lifestyle choices.

Bikman said diabetes is a disease of insulin rather than glucose, with type 1 diabetes being caused by too little insulin and type 2 diabetes being caused by too much. When the disease is seen through an insulin lens rather than a glucose one, it is detected earlier and treated better.

He also said a type 2 diabetic has a better outcome when treatment is focused on lowering insulin rather than just glucose. Since the disease is simply insulin resistance — "a prolonged state of elevated insulin and progressive loss of insulin's actions" — injecting insulin is actually counter-productive. "Thus, in a way, treating type 2 diabetes with insulin is comparable to treating alcoholism with another glass of wine; we are adding more of the very substance that caused the problem," he said.

Bikman said insulin resistance has become the most common disorder in the world, with modern dietary habits ensuring people have almost constantly elevated insulin levels; this means almost every chronic disease from heart disease and Alzheimer's, to obesity and infertility is either caused or exacerbated by having too much insulin and a growing resistance to insulin.

However, though lifestyle may be the cause of many chronic diseases, Bikman said lifestyle can also be the cure. He said people must control insulin to control metabolic health; however, there are many ways to do this, and "the voices promoting each of them all insist they know what's best."

He made three recommendations for deciding for one's self what lifestyle changes are best.

First, it's important for everyone to seek truth for themselves. As a missionary in Russia, for example, he never told anyone to "just believe me," yet that's the approach many people take to health and lifestyle. He encouraged listeners to study the "scientific scriptures," meaning published research articles.

Second, he encouraged listeners to test what they learn by putting into practice lifestyle changes they could keep up indefinitely. Third, he told listeners to be patient and endure the initial discomfort that comes with their lifestyle changes.

Bikman also said Church members are not spared from the "plagues of prosperity" despite the Word of Wisdom and their convictions about the sacredness of the body — in fact, Church members may suffer from them more than members of other religions. This may be because of cultural interpretations of the Word of Wisdom that skews heavily towards food that increase insulin, particularly refined starches and sugars.

He also said there's no such thing as the "Word of Wisdom diet" and there's nothing to be gained by attempting to literally interpret the Word of Wisdom.

"Prophets and apostles have divinely interpreted the application of the Word of Wisdom to include avoiding a short list of habit-forming substances, but they've not gone further. Nor should we," he said. "This then leaves tremendous room for personal interpretation and application — the Word of Wisdom is not a checklist and ... one should use his or her wisdom, which can come from one's education and experience."

For example, one member may choose not to eat grains, while another may avoid meat and focus on grains and fruits; as long as both are avoiding habit-forming substances, there shouldn't be any judgement among members about how each person is individually applying the Word of Wisdom. He also said members should never claim "moral superiority" with the Word of Wisdom, and it's naive to point a finger at a person buying coffee or tea while buying a large soda themselves.

"In other words, by following the very few precepts provided by divine direction, we need look no further into one's dietary habits and we can be confident each abides by the Word of Wisdom, though it may be different for each of us," he said.

Bikman also said he believes a portion of a person's eventual judgment will be based on how they treated their bodies, though that isn't to say there will be a measuring tape at the pearly gates. He also believes inherent genetic and environmental factors will be taken into account and it's also important not to judge others' bodies.

And though bodies are an important part of temporal lessons, they will never replace spiritual lessons. For example, Alma the Younger had a vision that was physically overwhelming; however, when recounting his testimony years later, he didn't say this physical experience was the source of his belief, but rather, it was the Holy Ghost through fasting and prayer.

"A spiritual event, though more subtle than its physical equivalent, leaves a more lasting impression," he said.

Bikman concluded by saying that as people modify their habits and improve their health, they'll be able to labor with all their might and with all the faculty of their soul.

"May we appreciate that our bodies can be a tool to help us develop divine attributes that prepare us for eternal progression," he said.