The wizardry of Oz
More wine; fewer low-fat foods; plenty of sex. dr Oz is a heart surgeon whose no-nonsense advice has made him america’s favourite medical guru.
ICAN’T think of a single thing that’s more like heart surgery than hosting a major television show,” says the man in navy scrubs sitting opposite me. As he is the only person I’m likely to encounter who has done both, I take his word for it. Meet Dr Mehmet Oz, “America’s Doctor”: the man four million Americans invite into their homes daily to be told the unblushing truth about everything from obesity and skin cancer to halitosis, pubic hair loss – and the correct way to pop a pimple.
“An operating theatre is like a stage in so many ways,” Dr Oz goes on, enthused by his own analogy. “You have a team around you who are much better at what they do than you are – whether it’s anaesthesiologists, scrub technicians, and heart and lung technicians, in the OR or audio and lighting directors on set – and you’re the glue that holds everything together.
“Plus the best surgeons, like the best TV presenters, are not people who don’t make mistakes, but people who know how to make the best of mistakes. Craziness happens,” he shrugs, “but that’s where the magic is.”
From his first appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004 (it was Winfrey who discovered the Cleveland-born doctor when she made him a regular on her show), 51year-old Dr Oz demonstrated the eerie absence of inhibition and consummate selfbelief that personifies “TV magic”.
“When he made it OK to talk about the shape of a good poop, I knew he could talk about anything,” says Winfrey, referring to the time Dr Oz told an audience that the product of a stellar gastrointestinal system should be S-shaped and hit the water like an Olympic diver, without much splash. “He always found ways to make the human body endlessly fascinating.”
Out in the United States, where health is the new religion and television doctors have taken over from chefs and celebrity hairdressers, he is unavoidable. Dr Oz has his own TV programme, The Dr Oz Show; his own daily radio show (on Winfrey’s satellite station, Oprah Radio); and his own series of bestselling books (there are nine million copies of his “You” series in print, from You: The Smart Patient to You: On a Diet to You: Having a Baby). In fact, with the TV show aired in 112 countries, one of the only places Oz isn’t found is Britain. Something he’s vowed to change in 2012.
Dr Oz admits that very little now has the capacity to shock him. “I’ve seen dead bowels, necrotic limbs and maggots eating dead feet, and the first time you see all that, it stretches your brain, but I cannot imagine a field better designed for me. Medicine grounds me, it centres me, that’s why I continue to do it.”
There is something of the zealot in his close-talking manner, but as the son of a Turkish emigre heart surgeon, a practising one himself for 26 years and the current Professor of Surgery at Columbia University, Dr Oz is no fraud.
“I was a very poor TV host when I started,” he assures me. “I had two strikes against me: I’m a guy and I’m a surgeon – and neither of those are known for being good listeners. Luckily for me, I was able to attend ‘ Oprah University’ and she taught me everything I know.”
It helped, he agrees, to have the confidence necessary in both professions, but my use of the term “God complex” prompts a frown. “As a surgeon, you have to have a controlled arrogance. If it’s uncontrolled, you kill people, but you have to be pretty arrogant to saw through a person’s chest, take out their heart and believe you can fix it. Then, when you succeed and the patient survives, you pray, because it’s only by the grace of God that you get there.”
From a surgeon, the terminology is surprising – does he believe in God? “Oh yes,” he nods. “I think it would be difficult to be a surgeon and not wrestle with that issue daily.” There’s a spiritual lilt to Dr Oz’s discourse, a romanticism in how he describes the human body, that goes a long way to explain his success. When we switch on ER or Grey’s Anatomy, it’s to gorge on viscera through splayed fingers – but it’s also because we thrive on the sentimentality bound up in life and death scenarios.
Dr Oz isn’t a dry physician telling America off, he’s an emotive optimist who admits to crying over patients (“though never in public”) and claims to have seen the human soul.
“There’s a reason poets talk about the heart,” he says. “There’s a place right in the middle of it where all the chambers touch and the electricity passes through.
“The first time you touch it, it’s like stroking a python, but soon, you realise that if you cajole it and nudge it in the right direction, it won’t sting – it’ll do great things. It’s the same with the people on my show: if you squeeze them, they’ll strike out at you, but if you can find a way of getting them to do what you want in a gentler way, they’ll let you.”
Ask Dr Oz what the three biggest health problems to affect both the US and Britain are today, and he doesn’t have to think about it for a second. “The first is obesity – without question. It’s responsible for most of the hypertension, diabetes, heart and cholesterol problems both countries suffer from. And you guys have a particularly big problem with it in Scotland, where you have some of the highest heart attack rates in the world.”
Dr Oz is surprisingly Mediterranean in his nutritional advice. “There are a lot of food Nazis in the US, but I believe if you can show people what’s really important, they’ll judge the rest for themselves.” It’s OK to eat eggs, whole milk (“skimmed milk actually makes you put on weight because once you’ve taken the fat out, all that’s left is carbohydrate”), salt, fat, nuts, red wine, chocolate and coffee – so long as we don’t overindulge – but it’s “low-fat”, “low-carb” and “low-sugar” foods that are the enemy.
“All those labels are lies, because someone has adulterated real food, which means that people have to add all sorts of nonsense to make it taste like real food. There is only one rule in life: if it comes out of the ground looking the way it looks when you eat it, it’s good for you.”
It’s our desire to live cheap, efficient lives that has got us into this black hole, he insists. “Food is no longer sacred to us: in becoming too efficient, we’ve changed its nature.”
A good example of this are trans-fats. “They preserve shelf life but they reduce human life – that’s the trade-off. In France, a peach will last two days at the most. Here, it lasts two weeks and milk never goes off. How is that possible?”
Our second biggest health problem, he says, is physical frailty. “If you go to places like Sardinia, Costa Rica or Okinawa, they have different foods and social structures, but one common characteristic: daily, rigorous activity. At least three-quarters of us live sedentary lives, so even if you got rid of all of the cancer in the US or Britain, we’d probably only live two-and-a-half years longer. What kills us is that we’re frail and then we get cancer.”
It’s Dr Oz’s third choice that’s the most unexpected: “Lack of intimacy,” he says. “Having sex is one of the best ways we have these days of revving our engines – it keeps us healthy and helps us live longer.
“Just going from once to twice a week can increase our life expectancy by three years, but if we’re not having enough sex, it means that the blood vessels leading to the penis and the clitoris are not working properly any more. And that means they’re not working to your kidneys or your brain either.”
He mentions a recent poll that showed 90% of American women weren’t happy with their sex lives. “We all need to think twice about the role of intimacy in our lives and force our-ourselves to have sex with our husbands or wives tonight.”
Force ourselves? “Yes,” he maintains,maintains, “because it’s important for your health and your relationship. Want to know how many calories you burn when you have sex?” he asks suddenly.
Anxious to be told that it’s six Krispy Kreme’s worth, I nod. “Twenty-three,” he says, bursting out laughing. “So although it’s not how you get into the shape you want to be in in life, it will make a huge difference to your overall health.”
Dr Oz’s life sounds as uncannily streamlined as his physique. Married for 26 years to Lisa, the father of four gets up at 5.45 every morning and does a seven-minute workout (“basically sun salutations – up-dog, down-dogs and push-ups”) before heading to the office with a flask of the “green drink” he takes everywhere with him (“ginger, apple, celery, spinach, lettuce and beetroot”).
When his last patient leaves, he’s looking forward to getting back to his family and his compulsive-eating black “flabrador” Rosie in New Jersey. But, before that, there are likely to be more poignant scenes.
“For many patients, we can’t fix the pain,” he says, “but we can fix the suffering. Because a lot of suffering is about lack of hope – and about fear. That’s a deep abyss right there.” And not one Dr Oz can ever imagine falling into. “I and everyone who reads this interview should share the same intent: to live to the age of 100, but only with the vitality we desire.”
Besides which, he’s not afraid of death. “I’ve seen so much of it,” he smiles, “even in horrific circumstances, it can be peaceful. When you see someone take their last breath and their eyes close, which they usually do, there is something very serene about that moment.” – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2012