What is the Ital diet?

When you think of Jamaican cuisine, certain dishes come to mind. For me it ranges from the succulent curried goat cheese with rice and peas and mouthwatering ackee and salt fish to your quintessential jerk chicken and escovitch fish.

While they are all admittedly very tasty, Jamaican cuisine has much more to offer than the meat and fish dishes associated with it – in particular, a plant-based diet that puts health first – both spiritual and physical – compared to anything else.

The Ital diet is a way of eating stemming from the Rastafarian religion, developed in Jamaica in the 1930s.

The diet consists mostly of vegetables and unprocessed foods, as Rasta firmly believe in the spiritual concept of “life” – a belief that an energetic force bestowed by Almighty Jah (God) flows through all people. living beings.

As a result, most of the Ital diet followers eat clean, natural foods and strongly believe that the diet is better for the human body, the planet and can help increase alertness and bring them closer to Jah.

“Growing up, I was familiar with the Ital diet and grew up eating a lot of steamed vegetables and meatless callaloo,” says vegan chef Denai Moore.

a selfie of denai moore in a gray turtleneck and print jacket
Denai moore

Moore, who is of Jamaican descent, began her journey with veganism in 2015, but grew up with an understanding of the Italian diet and eating the various fruits and vegetables found there.

“In fact, I’m very grateful for my upbringing in Jamaica, where I was very connected with food and where it came from at a young age,” she says.

This natural way of living and eating is a key aspect of Italian cuisine, as those on the diet do not eat meat or animal products, such as milk and eggs, in order to be fully nourished, healthy and spiritually living.

Although the diet can be both vegan and vegetarian, there are key products that are consumed as part of the Ital diet. Things like lentils, beans, and alkaline foods including spinach and broccoli, almonds and peanuts are staples with salads, carrots, and beets because they are pure and come straight from the ground. Earth.

Even the strictest followers of the Ital diet avoid eating foods that have been preserved by canning or drying, and avoid cooking with added salt.

“Before I even went vegan, I was surrounded by a few former vegans and Italians and it really opened my eyes,” says vegan blogger Ebony Williams, who has been on a plant-based diet for two years.

“As I have been a vegan I started to move away from processed foods and the more exposure I got to the Ital diet and the more I stick to a strict vegan diet the more I can say this has been the case. one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, ”she says.

an ebony williams selfie
ebony williams

Leonard Howell, one of the key figures in the Rastafarian movement, is said to have introduced the concept of a plant-based diet to the Rastafarian community after being intrigued by Hindu practices and the diet of Indian contract workers in Jamaica.

Over 36,000 Indians came to Jamaica as indentured laborers between 1845 and 1921, and they introduced many plants and trees to the island, including tamarind, jackfruit, mangoes, and betel leaves.

This nearly century-old diet has strong spiritual practices among Rastafarians and also deep roots in veganism as a whole – a movement that has gained popularity in the West but rarely recognizes its importance in the diets of people of color.

After all, the earliest evidence of vegetarianism as a concept came from ancient India, especially among Hindus and Jains, while one of the earliest known vegans was the Arab poet al-Maʿarri (circa 973-1057) , long before the expression was coined by Donald Watson in 1944.

“I still think there isn’t enough mainstream representation,” says Moore. “Just to think of all the POC cultures that ate meatless decades before ‘veganism’ was a term. I think that’s where social media comes in, allowing POC chefs / influencers to navigate their own platform.

Concepts and dishes of Italian cuisine are found in the traditional veganism that continues to gain traction today, but the vegan movement rarely sees blacks and browns flourish in these spaces to the extent that their white counterparts do. – despite the historical traditions of many POC communities. have with meatless diets.

“People may see veganism as new, but for many Caribs it’s been a way of life for quite some time,” says Jordan Johnson, founder of Jam Delish, a vegan take-out from the Caribbean.

Johnson founded the company in 2020 and has seen an increased demand for vegan Caribbean food and a desire to see more people of color represented in mainstream vegan culture.

“People tend to think of veganism as moms doing yoga or something, but that’s not the case at all,” he said.

Italian cuisine and the plant-based diets created by people of color over the years have arguably been the foundation of the vegan movement we see today – and although representations of POC among the general public remain limited. , we see that this is slowly starting to change.

A photo of a man standing behind a Caribbean food stall
Jordan johnson

“Through social media, I was able to connect and talk to a lot of people of color regarding the vegan movement,” says Williams. “It may come as a shock to some people that I am a vegan – but I am not alone and there are many others who are also on this path to improve their health, their diet and also the wider issue of help the planet and the animals. “

“Over the past year or so, a lot of vegan influencers that I know – people who have thousands of followers – are shining more light on veganism as something that isn’t just a movement of white people and point out that some have been around for a long time in one way or another, the Ital diet being a clear example, ”Johnson explains.

“The term veganism may be new, but the real concept behind it is ours. “

Images: Denai Moore, Ebony Williams, Jam Delish