When most people think of the Rastafari religion they think of Bob Marley. With songs emphasizing love, peace, and standing up for your rights, many of his lyrics reflect the teachings of the Rastafari movement. While made popular by Bob Marley, the religion itself, and the diet and lifestyle that follows, goes much deeper.
An Afrocentric religion that developed in Jamaica in the 1930’s, the Rastafari movement grew as a stance against the oppression, injustice, corruption, and inequality taking place on the island. The movement encourages black pride, self-sufficiency, freedom from oppression, and the “Back to Africa” concept that was originally made popular by Marcus Garvey.
Members of the Rastafari religion (self-titled “Rastas”) reject western society, which is often referred to as “Babylon”. They look down upon materialism, greed, vanity, and unethical behavior. Rastas consider their body to be a temple, so maintaining health and wellness through diet and exercise is extremely important from a religious standpoint.
The Rastafari diet is referred to as “Ital”, from the word “vital”, because food should promote life energy (called “Livity”). The phrase “Ital is vital” is popular among Rastas and is a catchy summary of this concept. As with other religious dietary customs, the degree to which one follows an Ital diet varies from person to person. In its strictest form, here are the basics of an Ital diet:
- Vegan: Meat is omitted because consuming dead flesh does not promote Livity. Dairy is not consumed, as it is considered unnatural for humans to consume cow’s milk. Foods that promote Livity come from the earth, and are therefore limited to plants.
- No Salt: Iodized (table) salt is avoided, because it has been chemically processed. Sea salt is sometimes used, as this is unprocessed.
- No Processed, Chemically-Altered, or Artificial Foods: These foods are unnatural and considered harmful to the body. Minimally processed foods are encouraged and cooked/prepared simply.
- No Alcohol, Soda, or Caffeinated Beverages: Alcohol is forbidden because it fogs the mind and is destructive to the body. It is also looked down upon because of its negative impact on society. Soda and caffeine are avoided because they are deemed unhealthy for the body.
- Organic Food is Encouraged: The use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals is strongly discouraged.
- Metal and Plastic Cookware is Avoided: Strict Rastas use clay or wood pots, dishes, and cutlery, in an attempt to stay close to nature.
In the strictest sense, an Ital diet is an organic, vegan diet that avoids processed foods, alcohol, soda, caffeine, and salt. You’re probably scratching your head, wondering what’s left. Plenty! Organic fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices and herbs. The most common Ital dish is Ital stew, which often features carrots, potatoes, okra, greens, plantains, pumpkin, legumes, coconut milk, and a variety of spices and herbs. Other dishes include: rice and peas (beans), porridge, callaloo (greens), smoothies, juices, curries, and boiled pumpkin, potatoes, or plantains.
The Rastafari religion and reggae music go hand in hand—and because diet is such an important aspect of the religion, it is the topic of many reggae songs. Here are a few of my favorites:
- “Mystic Man” by Peter Tosh
- “Fit You Haffe Fit” by Black Uhuru
- “No Bones No Blood” by Jah Sun
- “Wha Me Eat” by Macka B
Ital food has been part of the Rastafari religion for decades, but its principles are catching on elsewhere. In the United States, organic food sales are on the rise, along with an interest in vegetarian/vegan diets. More and more people are questioning the safety of artificial foods and chemical additives, and most grassroots food movements encourage eating less processed foods. Consuming salt, alcohol, and soda should be discouraged due to their negative health implications and our tendency to overconsume them. And we should avoid cooking or heating foods in plastic containers, as they can leach harmful chemicals into our food.
An Ital diet is meant to be healthy, nourishing, and encourage life energy. In its strictest form, it is an organic, vegan diet that emphasizes whole, plant-based foods, while discouraging animal products and processed foods. Such a diet can lower one’s risk for numerous chronic diseases, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and many types of cancer. Any up-to-date dietitian or doctor would agree that adopting an Ital diet, for whatever reason, is a wise choice. I would encourage anyone, whether Rasta or not, to eat Ital. And if anyone questions your new diet, simply tell them that “Ital is vital”, and go about your business.