Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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Vegans at sea

A doctor and his daughters cruise the Caribbean on the way to healthier living

When my father first proposed that my sister and I join him for a week on a vegan cruise, I’m sure he could feel my eyebrows rise as he clicked “send” on the email. A what? A vegan cruise?!

In 2009 my mother was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. She beat the odds and survived four more years. I credit those years in part to my father. The truth is, they did it together. He’s a pediatric urologist and my mother continued to work part-time as a pediatric ophthalmologist almost until her death. Their ability to listen, see solutions rather than problems and to continually question the status quo, allowed the family -- including my sister and me -- to find ways to tackle the disease one day at a time.

During this demanding period, my dad read a book that changed his perspective on nutrition and disease. The China Study by T. Colin Campbell PhD and Thomas M. Campbell PhD was published in 2005. It’s loosely based on the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, a 20-year study, and became a New York Times bestseller. The book puts the case that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and various cancers. It speaks in the language of science, one with which my father is most comfortable and he clearly found it convincing. In 2011, to our great surprise, my father became a vegan.

The next year, 2012, was a tragic one for our family. It saw the death of my uncle, my grandmother and, in the end, my mother. The idea of my sister and I sharing a holiday with my dad, just the three of us, seemed like the breath of fresh air we all needed after the long ordeal.


This past March we set sail on the MSC Divina from Miami for a week long cruise with stops in St-Martin, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. We would be part of The Holistic Holiday at Sea a program that would include daily lectures and workshops on nutrition and other “healthy” topics and the menu would be entirely vegan. It’s a luxurious ship with 18 decks, pools, bars, restaurants and lounges in every corner, a floating Las Vegas of sorts, not quite what I’d imagined given the nature of the conference.

The man behind these healthy offerings at sea is Sandy Pukel, who, in 1970, opened Oak Feed in Coconut Grove now the best known health food store in South Florida. Eleven years ago he came up with the idea of offering lectures and vegan meals on a cruise ship where participants shared the boat with regular holidayers. He remembers the early days when doctors would not even identify themselves as being part of such gathering for fear of damage to their reputations among their colleagues if word got out. Five years later, in 2008, National Geographic named the cruise one of “the best 100 worldwide vacations to enrich your life.”

One of the presenters on our trip, Dr Janet Jonefal, Director of Integrative and Complementary Academic Medicine Programs (iCAMP) at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine describes the cruise as “a mixture of high level training in an atmosphere where it’s a living experience. The fact that non-vegan options are available elsewhere on the ship is a plus as it replicates real-life, where social pressures and food choices are part of the challenges we face every day.”

She’s right about the pressures. Every morning as I passed the eggs and cheese in the regular buffet, I had to remind myself of the choices I’d made for the next seven days: to give a vegan way of eating a chance and to keep an open mind. After all, it was only a week.

On this, its 11th voyage, China Study author himself, T Colin Campbell at age 80, was clearly the vegan rock star of the cruise. In a nutshell, his research suggests that plant-based protein reduces tumour development and is good for the heart, but his suggestion that dairy products and fish could trigger cancer cells or raise my cholesterol levels gave me something new to chew on.


Over the seven days, there were 120 classes to choose from, 35 speakers, and a whole ocean of people with whom to discuss and share experiences.

The dialogue and engagement between participants and speakers created a powerful learning environment based on mutual respect. It mixed science, personal experience and beliefs into absorbing conversations that often began with “how long have you been a vegan?” Most people said between two and five years. They weren’t at all critical of my non-vegan state, most complimented me for giving it a try.

Presenting scientific research to a more secular audience enlarged the scope of “healthy” conversations – we were all open to new perspectives. The benefits of a plant-based diet certainly took center-stage but there were talks on meditation, skincare, the healing power of the mind, and vegan cooking boot-camp classes to name just a few. Many participants also brought along family members and friends for a crash course. Though most people were over 50, I was surprised at the number of people in their early 30s with kids. How often in a CME setting, do doctors engage with both their peers and the general public at the same time?


My sister and I doubted that submerging ourselves in a vegan “culture” for a week could teach us more than we would have learned from reading a book.

“From the moment I decided to keep an open-mind, the experience became fully enriching,” my sister says of the cruise. As for my dad, who had spent the last two years debating the topic with us, “I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of our trip, everyone is more inquisitive and a lot less defensive, isn’t this a step in the right direction?”

So, do I now solely eat a plant-based diet? Well, one thing is clear. I’m eating more fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and grains and less meat, fish and dairy, and I believe it’s good for me and my family.

While there are never any absolutes in life, the prospect that a plant-based diet may reduce the chances of a cardiovascular event or cancer is now firmly in my mind. I learned a lot more on this cruise about nutrition and disease, and than I anticipated when I got that telephone call from Dad. I’ll never look at the food on my plate in quite the same way again.

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