Lively Up Yourself:
Uplifting a Rastafari Diet

In Food by Aaron Parry

Ital originates from the word “vital”, meaning lively or full of energy. If you take a look at the abundance of bright, fresh foods that are elevated through the Ital diet, it becomes clear that it really does live up to its name. Ital uplifts plant-based alternatives while continuing to highlight the culinary cultures of people of African descent. Emerging as a key element within the Rastafari movement of Jamaica, it has begun to thrive across the world as it decolonizes plates and uplifts healthy minds and bodies.

To provide some background on the origins of Ital, we must recognize the movement which gave birth to it. Rastafari began as a religious and political movement in Jamaica in the 1930s, offering a political voice for oppressed and disenfranchised Black workers on the island. Embracing Black resistance, the liberation philosophy of Marcus Garvey, and biblical stories from the Old Testament, Rastafari has been used by nearly one million people across the diaspora as a way to combat systems of colonialism and to become more spiritually in touch with themselves and the world around them. Many of the teachings within this faith focus not only on living spiritually healthy lives, but also on being mentally, physically, and environmentally healthy. This brings us to Ital, the diet followed by many Rastas, which highlights eating natural, pure and clean foods.

The Ital lifestyle began around the same time as the rise of Rastafari in Jamaica. Living within a predominantly Christian country, the Rastafari faith was seen as going against the norm, leading many of its followers to live on the fringes of society, often in the hills of Jamaica. The Rastas living in these regions began to base their diets off of the natural foods that they found growing around them, eating raw and sun ripe foods that did not require cooking. Since Jamaica is predominantly made up of descendants of enslaved Africans, it is important to note that early Rastas may have also been influenced by their own roots, as many West African nations have highlighted plant-based diets since time immemorial.

Leaning towards the spiritual aspects of following a healthy diet, Ital focuses on eating high-vibration foods, rather than low-vibration ones, to increase your levity. Livity is a Rastafari term meaning “life force”, the energy within all life which can be impacted by our diets and lifestyles. In this way, Ital calls upon followers to be mindful about what you are putting into your body and where those foods are coming from. Ras Flako Tafari, a Rastafari elder, states that “To maintain a healthy living, which is more important, is to eat healthy things. Things that are not being contaminated, things that are pure, things which are of the earth.” 

The make-up of the diet seeks to provide followers with the healthiest lifestyle possible by encapsulating the mental, physical, spiritual and environmental aspects of health. Some of the basic rules within Ital are:

No Salt. Salt is seen as a killer of natural flavours and is said to remove the spiritual experience of eating. This rule emphasizes adjusting to the fresh taste of natural foods mixed with herbs and spices. While some Ital followers still use salt, they tend to use unprocessed types such as sea salt, Himalayan salt or kosher salt.

No Meat. Ital rules out meat, seeing it as “flesh” and “dead” material that should not be ingested by the human body. Rastafari believe that when an animal is killed, the stress and trauma which it experiences become energy within its body and can later be taken on by those consuming its meat. Anyone transitioning from a meat-related diet to Ital must first take part in a cleanse that is intended to purify one’s body of the “contaminated” foods within them so that their body can accept the new food. Aside from the spiritual aspect of this rule, meat consumption is also observed to produce physical impacts such as stomach pain or constipation. Environmental ethics also plays a role as Ital seeks to promote animal protection and to oppose the raising of animals for slaughter. Some make exceptions for fish, defining that Ital followers can consume fish as long it has scales and is less than a foot long. 

No Dairy. Animal milk is sworn off as it is seen as unnatural to consume, but plant-based variants such as coconut milk are allowed.

No Metal or Plastic Cookware. Clay or wooden pots, dishes or utensils are often preferred. Ital warns followers to be wary of traces of metal or plastic which can enter the food during cooking or preparation.

No Alcohol. Seen as a low vibration substance, alcohol is also believed by many Rastafari to be a tool to lower human consciousness.

Moderate White Foods. While they are not banned, this rule calls upon Ital followers to consume “white” carb-heavy foods in moderation, as they often lack nutrients. These include potatoes, white rice or refined sugar.

Natural Sugar. While refined sugar is eaten infrequently, Ital promotes eating natural substitutes such as fruit, honey, molasses or cane sugar.

 No Preservatives, Additives, or Chemicals. This rule is one of the most significant, as it relates to the consumption of any foods which are allowed under Ital. Processed or mass-produced foods which are often filled with preservatives, additives or chemicals directly go against the idea of eating clean and pure. They are seen as low-vibration foods, which decrease your levity and negatively affect your conscience.

Fresh and Raw Foods. Making up the majority of the Ital diet, fresh foods grown from the earth are a must for Ital followers. As the original home of Rastafari, the flora in Jamaica reveals an abundance of Ital-approved foods; callaloo, beans, peas, coconut, tamarind, allspice and scotch bonnet peppers usually featured in Ital meals. Additionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are best eaten raw so that 100% of the nutrients can be gained. Rastafari use modern technology to their advantage by predominantly using blenders to prepare food without using fire or heat. To show respect for the earth, plants must be treated carefully when harvesting Ital foods. Before harvesting an Ital food, it is necessary to bless the plant and to ask its permission to cut part of it, allowing followers to show respect for all life.

  While these remain the main rules set out by many Rastafari, Ital continues to be interpreted in different ways across the world. Black folks across the diaspora often use Ital as a way to highlight the fresh, natural foods which make up the rich diets of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America. Healthy diets such as Ital can effectively change our lifestyles for the better, allowing us to express our heritage in new ways while breaking pervasive stereotypes surrounding “Black foods” as being purely unhealthy. Within areas of Africa and the diaspora which are heavily impacted by mass-produced foods and fast food culture, using our heritage to improve our health could be an effective way to improve the spiritual and physical health of our communities on a daily basis. Urban community gardens are becoming more and more prevalent within the United States as African Americans seek to live healthy lifestyles while continuing to enjoy cultural staples like sweet potatoes, okra, and greens. In this way, people across the diaspora are seeking to better their communities by addressing issues of food sovereignty, proving that the liberation emphasized by Rastafari can indeed be exemplified through our diets.

As a healthy lifestyle, Ital is considered a “diet for everyone”, which is not only adhered to by the Rastafari and can be adopted by anyone regardless of their spiritual or religious background. A restaurant that is trying to bring the Ital diet to Canadians is “Ital Vital”, a vegan takeout and juice bar run by two Rastafari in Toronto, Ontario. Their dishes range from classic Caribbean dishes like rice and peas to creative Ital meals such as BBQ tofu spare ribs. Restaurants like Ital Vital are significant not simply for promoting healthy diets, but also succeed in supporting local organic growers and markets. Corporations that take over local supermarkets provide us with altered foods, which may be cheaper than organic foods but are too often tainted by GMOs and pesticides. Prof I, a Rastafari elder and musician, suggests that it is important for all of us to consider changing our way of living from going to the supermarket to growing our own food. He shares his outlook on the dangers of major food corporations, “them start to corrupt it with them Monsanto and them fertilizer and them Roundup and all them kinda chemical and poison them put by the food.” As well, these corporations do not promote environmental sustainability and often perpetuate the unethical treatment of their workers and the lands on which they function. Diets such as Ital, which promote the consumption of fresh and unprocessed foods may be the key to forwarding our own health and repairing our relationship with the environment for the betterment of future generations. 

The masterminds behind Toronto, Ontario vegan takeout restaurant “Ital Vital”, Arnold “Makus” Freeman and Michael “Drey” Stephens.

While Ital originates from a term meant to convey that which is full of energy, it can also take on another meaning. “Vital” can be used to refer to something that is “absolutely necessary” or “essential”.  Maybe we should be thinking more about the foods that go on our plates in the same way. Rather than cooking what’s fast and easy, we can consider different ways of eating that make us feel good mentally, physically, and spiritually. People of African descent all over the world are able to use Ital to simultaneously eat fresh, healthy foods while uplifting their ancestral heritage in every meal. Now, the choice is yours, are you ready to take the first bite?