Jamaican Ital Food: A Brief Introduction

As persons across the world continue to fight against obesity or strive for a healthier lifestyle, many have turned to more natural foods to optimize their results.

Despite many persons practicing veganism or vegetarianism globally, there is one group of people who sought to ditch meat and processed foods, long before it was cool to do so. These are the Rastafari people from Jamaica, whose natural diet is referred to as ‘Ital Food’.

Where does the term ‘ital food‘ stems from?

Growing up, I’ve always heard the phrase “ital is vital”. So, naturally, I thought ital came from the English word vital. In fact, there are a few articles on the internet that posit the same. However, when I got older and did my own research, I realized that the term ‘ital’ really came from the word ‘natural’.

According to one of Jamaica’s most prolific Rastas, known as Prof I, the term ital is the product of a language created by the Rastafari people. In this language, the Rastas will include the letter ‘I’ in various English words. So, instead of saying ‘natural’ food, Rastas say ‘i-tal’ food. Other examples include ‘coconut’ to ‘I-conut’, ‘orange’ to ‘i-ringe’ and so on.

Origins of ital food

It is believed that Leonard Howell, one of the earliest leaders of the Rastafari Movement introduced the ital diet to the Rastas. Howell, who had taken interest in the vegetarian diet of the Indentured-Indian servants in the country, had sought to encourage this way of eating among Rastas. The Indentured-Indian servants arrived in the country in the mid to late 19th century and brought their religion, Hinduism and Buddhism with them. These religions have embedded in them the importance of refraining from harming others, including animals.

Common principles of eating ital

The diet of the Rastas is guided by a common principle, and that is to eat natural foods from the earth. This means they don’t eat processed foods or foods from animals. Some Rastas even exclude bi-products of animals, such as eggs from the diet. Many do not consume salt either. Their belief is that feeding off nature will boost their immunity and longevity.

However, it’s important to note that eating ital is much more than a diet to prolong one’s lifespan. It includes a holistic lifestyle, which aims to improve the physical, mental and spiritual health of those who practice it. Rastas view eating ital, as one of their most important religious practices, and it is linked to their respect for their bodies, the bodies of others, the earth and animals. So, no wonder they refuse to eat meat, as this would mean killing livestock to feed themselves.

Do you have to be a Rasta to eat ital food?

In the words of Grammy-nominated Jamaican reggae band, “you don’t have to be dread to be Rasta”. The same applies to ital food. After all, Leonard Howell did not sport dreadlocks, but it’s believed that he introduced, the ital way of eating to the Rastas. In fact, many locals have often included ital foods in their diets, giving their bodies the boost, it needs to fight diseases. Additionally, visitors to Jamaica, have made it their duty to add some ital foods to their list of Jamaican foods to try. So, despite being associated with the Rastafari Movement, you don’t have to be a Rasta to enjoy ital food.