You’ve undoubtedly seen Dr. Mehmet Oz on television dressed in his signature button-down shirt, jacket and pants looking out at his studio audience with that winning, wide-open smile. Someone famous usually accompanies him: Morgan Freeman, Megyn Kelly, Kelly Rowland, Oprah.
In fact, Oprah discovered Oz back in 2004, inviting him on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as a frequent guest. Her groundwork successfully catapulted him into the spotlight as the go-to guy for the average American in need of health advice.
Almost overnight, Oz created an empire. His Emmy-winning television program, “The Dr. Oz Show,” centers on what Oz calls “bread and butter” topics: what to eat to feel your best, how to lose weight, how to become the person you want to be. He’s written a series of “YOU” books for every life stage: You: The Owner’s Manual, You: Being Beautiful, You: Having a Baby, You: Losing Weight. He sits on the faculty at Columbia University. On top of that, Oz is a practicing surgeon at New York-Presbyterian, where he performs heart procedures once a week.
Oz is part doctor, part entertainer—a hybrid that has spawned its share of criticism. His notoriety, along with equivocal claims, such as the 2014 scandal involving “magic” weight loss pills derived from green coffee extract, has given Oz a reputation as the nation’s most controversial physician. In a New Yorker profile, Eric Topol of the Cleveland Clinic spoke of Oz’s advice as “medutainment,” rather than medicine. Oz told NBC News that his program is “not a medical show.”
Then there’s the “Oz effect”: Once Oz recommends a product, stores can’t keep their shelves stocked with it.
So just who is Dr. Oz? In an interview with Boca, the part-time Palm Beach resident shares a glimpse of his routine in South Florida, his views on GMO foods and gluten-free diets, and advice from his latest book, Food Can Fix It.
What initially drew you to Palm Beach?
My wife’s [Lisa’s] family had a place in Palm Beach for 60 years. My first exposure to it was when I was in medical school, when my wife and I had just started dating. I went to visit her down on Casa Bendita. I had never seen anything like this in my life. I’m of Turkish origin, I’ve traveled the world—this was just unique. And I fell in love with the place; it’s hard not to. We go down for Christmas or Spring Break. Not too much, but enough to appreciate how beautiful it is.
My wife’s family is the Asplundh family. They probably have half a dozen houses now—different family members have houses on the island. So it’s easy for us to make that the gathering point whenever we have family holidays.
The best part of Palm Beach may be the restaurants; they’re unbelievable. If you’re not on the beach, the best part is the restaurants.
The Palm Beach Landmarks Preservation Commission recently approved renovations to your home, Louwana. What are you most excited about being remodeled?
There’s no question what I’m excited about: the kitchen. My [oldest] daughter, Daphne, she was on “The Chew,” and my wife has a New York Times best-selling cookbook. We’re big food people.
The house is beautiful, built in 1919. I think it’s the oldest Mizner house on the island. But the kitchen is not up-to-date. It’s sort of cramped. So the renovations are going to allow us to redo the kitchen … so we can actually eat in there.
What activities do you enjoy when you’re visiting the area?
What I love most is my routine. If someone is visiting Palm Beach or if they live there, they should definitely do this. I get up in the morning first thing. I grab a grapefruit, ‘cause it’ll tide me over. My wife and I just walk. We just love being on the beach. We see people exercising, staying active, having a good time. It’s very pensive.
One of the special things about Palm Beach is the beaches aren’t crowded. We love the bike trail. From our house, you head straight over west to the Intracoastal and bike along there.
It’s like a playground to me in many ways. People tend to be informal. We certainly are. Friends will say, “Hey, we’re driving by, we noticed the gate’s open, are you guys around?” They’ll come over, and three hours later they’re enjoying flag football on the beach.
Where do you enjoy dining in Palm Beach?
We love Imoto and Buccan. They’re next to each other, and you can eat the food from one [at] the other—that’s a big thing for us. In West Palm, we like Avocado Grill. My wife’s vegetarian, so [are] most of the kids, so it’s an easy place to get vegetarian fare.
Why is food nature’s most powerful medicine?
Nature has ways of protecting itself. For example, all the colorful fruits and vegetables that you see in the grocery store—they’re not colorful by accident. Those are the colors of powerful antioxidants. Carotene, that’s in carrots. Vitamin C, which is in citrus, is common in South Florida. Vitamin E is found in Brazil nuts. All these powerful foods have colors because they’re protecting themselves from the sun … So when you take those foods and eat them, you give yourself the power of these foods. They’re now converted to you.
We don’t think much about how the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom interact, but as we learn more and more, it’s shocking. Like, elephants on safari will only eat upwind. Because when trees sense that other leaves have been pulled off the branches … their leaves turn bitter immediately. And elephants don’t want to eat it anymore. That’s the power of food. The most remarkable element of this whole constellation is that you as a consumer have a remarkable ability to heal a myriad of illnesses, chronic issues, mood issues, the inability to sleep, athletic performance. But you have to pay attention to which foods, how they’re prepared and how often to eat them.
“Food Can Fix It” is the first book you’ve written in 10 years. Why is now the perfect time to release it?
I wanted science to catch up with what I felt needed to be said. When you walk into a grocery store, you’re walking into a pharmacy. When you can appreciate that power, you respect food. Not just the taste, not just the nutrients, but what the temperature can do, what the aromas can do to your mood. What are the medicinal applications of food?
Historically, doctors used food to heal their patients. And medicine has a hard time quantitating that. It’s easy for me to show that a gunshot to the chest is treated with surgery successfully. Or I can sew a laceration up or treat an infection in your urine. But proving to you that vitamin C helps with this or that, or that vitamin B12 can help you with sciatic pain—that takes a little time. Now I can actually speak about it more authoritatively.
The gluten-free debate is a big topic in American health. Do you think gluten is the enemy?
I think gluten is a problem for a limited number of people. But it’s a marker for a much bigger opportunity. Some people have celiac [disease]—that’s actually a pretty small percentage of the population—or gluten intolerance, which is larger, but still single digits. For people who eat a lot of wheat, they are prone to other problems. They tend to eat things that are on the wheat: the mayonnaise, the cold cuts, the foods that tend to travel along with gluten. So it’s not just the gluten. It’s the whole constellation of issues.
If you’re not feeling your best, one of the first things you should do is an elimination diet, [which] is cutting out specifically dairy and wheat. Those two are some of the biggest culprits. By doing that for two weeks, if you feel a lot better, you know you had an issue with one of them. You can add one back and see if you still feel OK—and then you know who the culprit was.
I think when you buy gluten-free foods at the grocery store, you’re often getting conned. Because if you take foods that naturally have gluten in them, and you take the gluten out, then you’ve got to add something back into that food to make it palatable. … So you adulterate the food. And the most powerful foods are the ones that are not changed. …So overall theme: If you’re going gluten-free, eat foods that are naturally free of gluten—nuts, fish, vegetables, fruits—not foods that have been changed to remove their gluten.
What about GMO vs. non-GMO foods?
GMO foods aren’t the biggest problem, in my opinion. It’s the reasons we [avoid] GMO. If the purpose of GMO modification is to allow you to apply high doses of toxic pesticides, which are bad for you and for the environment, then I’m not so sure that GMO foods are in our best interest. … Foods are GMO because they were designed to allow us to make more money, after spraying industrial amounts of these pesticides on. And they’re a little bit of a false promise, because they don’t really protect the food supply. Eventually these foods will become resistant to the effects of the pesticides, and you’ve got to make something even stronger.
If you’re making a GMO food that lets the apple not turn brown, that you can slice up and give it to kids so they’ll eat it at school, I’m OK with that. But if you’re doing it for the reason I spoke of earlier, I’m not so approving.
You’ve been called “America’s doctor.” How has the term affected you and the Dr. Oz brand, if at all?
You know, that was never my idea. I never called myself “America’s doctor,” ever. I think it’s a little audacious to call yourself “America’s doctor,” but Oprah would call me that. Lisa [Oz] liked the name, and Oprah’s producers were the ones who came up with it. She felt that was a way of defining my advice as being advice that the average person could hear.
I can’t be your doctor because I can’t examine you. But I can give advice to you that a lot of doctors would like you to hear. Especially when I talk about the chronic things we do wrong: smoking, not managing our blood pressure. I do take the information we offer from the major medical associations: American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, doctors’ groups, etc. And I’ve spoken in front of many of these groups. I try to reflect to the patients the advice many doctors would offer them. Or at least provide them insight that will allow the conversation in the doctor’s office to be started at a more advanced level.
Would you consider yourself to be more of a medical professional or more of an entertainer?
[Pause]. I’m in love with being able to help people. My whole passion, throughout my whole career, is built as a medical doctor, and I still practice once a week. My whole life has been about empowering people. I spend most of my time thinking about how to marry those two disciplines. But you can’t actually practice medicine on television. You have to entertain people and give them advice … the way you would at a cocktail party.
What’s the secret to making positive lifestyle changes that stick long-term?
You got to love them. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re not going to do it for the rest of your life. That’s why I always tell people not to eat food that’s good for them. Eat food you love that happens to be good for you.