“Haffi stop eat too much animal”: Before the Vegan diet, Was the Ital diet

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“Haffi stop eat too much animal”: Before the Vegan diet, Was the Ital diet

October 2, 2023

By Solaire Denaud

“Haffi stop eat too much animal,” sings Reggae artist Macka B in his song, “Health is Wealth,” reflecting the beliefs of numerous Rasta artists who preceded him. The Rastafari movement is known for its symbolic and Afro-centric aesthetic, including dreadlocks and long beards, and its popular Reggae music by artists such as Bob Marley and Koffee. But less commonly known is that many Rastas consume a diet of plant-based, organic, and untransformed food from their gardens or farms.

For Rastas, maintaining a healthy diet while also avoiding participating in the capitalist system has been a central belief since the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, Jamaican Rastas followed a plant-based, locally grown, and organic diet for more than a decade before the term “vegan” was coined by the British vegetarian society.

The Ital diet, as it is called, appeared in Rastafari communes in Jamaica around 1930 and has since spread throughout the African Diaspora. Nowadays, 10% of Jamaicans are vegetarian or vegan, mainly due to the influence of the Rastafari movement.

What is the Ital diet?

The Rastafari movement’s strictly plant-based diet goes far beyond veganism. Rastas consider non-manufactured, raw, plant-based, and organic food the most suitable fuel for the human body. Therefore, it is named “Ital” as it is “vital” for a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual self, which is why the “v” is dropped to emphasize the letter and pronoun “I.”

For the most rigorous Rastas, the Ital diet is strictly plant-based and excludes all canned, refined, and transformed foods which are all considered “Babylonian” foods (food associated by Rastas with colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization). Some Rastas take their commitment to natural and non-manufactured products as far as avoiding potential contaminants throughout the cooking process, eschewing materials such as plastic and aluminum.

How did the Ital diet develop?

The history of Rastafari plant-based food dates back as early as 1930. It developed amid the Great Depression, only ten years after the official end of Indentureship (after the abolition of slavery, contracted impoverished workers mainly from China and India “replaced” formerly enslaved Africans in the plantations), and within a century of the abolition of chattel slavery.

At the time, a fragment of lower-class Jamaican youth retreated into communes to escape the overwhelming violence of neo-colonial Jamaican society. Like the maroons before them—the enslaved Africans who decided to run away from plantations and hide from white enslavers in forests and mountains—Jamaican youth used hills and forests to manifest their refusal to be included in neo-colonial Jamaica.

In their communes, they developed an alternative lifestyle and spirituality, drawing on South Indian spiritualities imported into the Caribbean by Asian indentured workers, Christianity, African spiritualities such as Ubuntu, and philosophies articulated locally by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. They called it “livity” (the way to live to the fullest). It would become emblematic of the Rastafari movement.

Against the neo-colonial projects widespread in Jamaica at the beginning of the 20th century, which rejects local farming as a backward industry and promotes jobs in modern global sectors, such as tourism, as the island’s economic future, Rastas imagine another project that values a more direct relationship with the land.

In the Rastafari worldview, highly transformed products, industrialization, and the pollution of land with chemicals are all part of Babylon, the colonial and capitalist society they are trying to escape. Rastas believe that health and longevity emanate from nature, which is why their diet is called Ital. In the Rastafari view, there is no such thing as improving nature; any modification of nature is a degradation. Capitalism, colonialism, and their modes of production, which emphasize transformation and technological improvement, are construed as profoundly unnatural.

More than a decade before veganism was coined, Rastafari had already thought of a world in which liberation from capitalism and colonialism included humanity, the land, and all its non-human inhabitants.
Construing nature and non-human animals as fellow victims of Babylon asserts that violence against nature and non-human animals is also a form of colonial violence, another that needs to cease.


E. Solaire Denaud is an IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellow and a French and Haitian Ph.D. student in the Comparative Literature Program. Her research focuses on race and animality in Caribbean literature as well as occurrences of Black plant-based diets throughout the Black Diaspora.