Ital Food & Tsom Food

(repost from my Travel Blog at

In 2007, I learned about this thing the Rastas call “Ital”. Ital is an Iyaric (Rasta talk) word that means “vital”, but with the connotation of “I” (as in, “I am vital”, or “my vitality”). It can also mean, “I-Tall,” as in, “these are the things that make I grow tall” (in stature and in spirit). Ital is a livity (way of living) that encompasses many aspects, but is usually discussed or considered around topics of eating: what to eat and what not to eat. An Ital diet can mean many different things, depending on who is giving the definition.

Some of the ways that Ital food can be defined include:

  • Only consuming food you grew yourself
  • Eating only plant-based foods
  • Restricting the diet to the foods that are considered “clean” in the Old Testament of the Bible
  • Eating plants along with some fish
  • A vegetarian diet including certain dairy and egg products
  • A diet with NO white foods (white flour, white sugar, white rum, white salt, white rice, white bread, etc.)

I have experimented a lot over the past 15 years with this entire spectrum of dietary restrictions. As a fitness coach, I have also challenged myself to eat for performance and for health. These ideas weren’t always compatible, but there were often parallels with notions like Vegan, Organic, Locovore, Pescatarian, Kosher, Halal, and Paleo. Some versions of the Ital diet worked well for my body and others did not.

When I did my training and certification as a Nutrition Coach, I began to appreciate the individuality of an ideal diet. What works for me may not work for you because everyone’s food must be personalized. We all have very different tolerances, sensitivities, and nutrient requirements. We also differ in our values, priorities, and goals. So, of course it would be impossible to make an absolute blanket dietary prescription for all humans. That’s where all the dietary fads and cults fail, but there are lessons we can learn from them:

  • Foods that you grow yourself, hunt, fish, or forage will be the most under your own control and discretion and likely the highest quality
  • Foods are more nutritious and sustainable when sourced as locally, seasonably, and organically as possible
  • Plant foods contain a broad array of important nutrients (amino acids, fatty acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals) and non-nutrients (fiber and water)
  • Ideas of dietary cleanliness are important mechanisms to regulate food sourcing and hygiene
  • The most highly-processed food products that power the global industrial food system are also those most linked to chronic illness and life-threatening disease
  • Your diet is for you and does not need to serve a narrow ideology

These are a few of the nutrition principles that I now advocate for. I also teach an idea of BLOOD, DIRT, and WATER as a simple heuristic for defining good human nutrition. “Blood” means eat healthy meat from healthy animals. “Dirt” means eat plenty of plants that come straight out of the ground and need to be washed. “Water” means drink water and help keep our waters clean.

But my life is a constant experiment and I haven’t stopped there. My learning about nutrition through practice of new ideas continues. Today I practice what is basically the Ethiopian version of Ital: the particular diet of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. In this diet, there are actually two diets to be followed at different times:

  1. “Yet Baraka,” meaning, “blessed food.” This is all the food allowed by the Law of Moses.
  2. “Yet Tsom,” meaning, “fasting food.” These are the foods we eat on Wednesdays and Fridays and certain other fasting periods throughout the year, such as the current Fast of the Prophets that continues until Genna (the Ethiopian Christmas).

“Tsom” is a word that means Fasting. This is an Ethiopic word, Ge’ez I believe, and found today in both Amharic and Tigrinya. It is very close to the Arabic and Swahili words for fasting, such as, “Sayumu.” During Tsom, or fasting periods, we eat no animal products whatsoever (honey is considered a plant product). So, Tsom food is basically vegan food, but typically straight from the earth. You don’t find Top Ramen and tofu in a Tewahedo Tsom diet, but you do find Injera made from Teff, stews of various lentils and pulses, sauteed greens, salads, and other plant-based whole foods.

When I am in the Tsom period, I don’t restrict myself only to Ethiopian foods, though. I still eat the globe, with Kenyan, Mexican, Indian, Thai, and various other cuisines. Sometimes I eat pure raw food, like simple plates of fruit or little salads.

Here are some pictures of the kind of Tsom foods I have been eating on my latest trip to Africa. Maybe you will find some inspirations here.

Published by nicnakis

Nicholas |nik-uh-luhs| n. a male given name: from Greek words meaning "victory of the people" John |jon| n. a male given name: from Hebrew Yohanan, derivative of Yehohanan "God has been gracious" Nakis |nah-kis| n. a Greek family name derived from the patronymic ending -akis (from Crete) Amha |am-hah| n. an Ethiopian given name meaning "gift", from Geez Selassie |suh-la-see| n. Ethiopian name meaning "trinity", from Geez

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