The prominent health expert and perhaps the most trusted family doctor in the U.S. previews season 5 of his Emmy-winning syndicated TV show.
Heart surgeon & TV show host Dr. Mehmet Oz
Tavis: For Dr. Oz, no medical question is too personal to be discussed on national television. His Emmy-winning syndicated daytime series is just starting its fifth season this week, and his expertise and willingness to tackle difficult subjects has made him a virtual family doctor for so many across the nation.
He’s a professor of surgery at Columbia University and still performs, believe it or not, some 100 cardiac surgeries each year. He joins us now from, where else, New York. Dr. Oz, good to have you on the program, sir.
Dr. Mehmet Oz: Well, thank you, Tavis. Finally I get to be on the program instead of just watching it all the time. You do a great job.
Tavis: Well, thank you. I’m honored to have you on. So you’re starting your fifth season. What is it that you hope to accomplish this time around?
Oz: Well you go to high school for four years; you go to middle school for four years. Turns out, by the way, college and med school are also four years. So it takes about that long, I think, to really get proficient at something.
As my mentor Oprah taught me, it takes a long time to figure out the game of show business, and particularly hosting shows. So I think we can go places we hadn’t been able to go before, now that we’re entering our fifth year.
If I had to diagnose our show, I’d say we have “funitis laughococcis.” (Laughter) I want to have a great time. I want to get folks thinking differently about what they can do in their lives, and I’ve tried to pick guests and topics that would assure that.
Tavis: I have noted, as I’ve seen the billboards all around town here in Los Angeles and seen the TV commercials about your fifth season, that the word “fun” is obviously what’s at the epicenter of what you want to do this year, as you said a moment ago.
Tell me where the balance is between talking about issues that are so severe and that are so serious, and yet getting people to have fun with it, with their lives.
Oz: Let me start with the premise that if you can laugh your way through life, you can have a good time as you’re going through the sometimes troubling time that we have in our lives, that’s as important as being able to live a life without being overweight for your health.
So it’s not just whimsical desire to have a good time while we’re talking about health, it has a true health benefit in itself. But the big challenge, Tavis, and I think a lot of folks will appreciate this about their own lives – most of us think of health information, of medical content, as sour and dour.
Who wants to go home and do homework, trying to figure out how to do all these crazy things? I had enough stress at work. It turns out that you don’t live healthfully to live longer; you live healthfully to feel better today.
When you enjoy today better, and I can celebrate life with you wherever you happen to be, that’s going to make the entire process more rewarding. After doing quite a few shows – we’re into our 700s now of shows – that’s quite a bit of experience.
Having made mistakes, I’ve learned if you try to threaten people with bad stuff, try to use a stick, they just don’t hear it. But if you go to people and say listen, I understand there’s sometimes difficult stuff to have to figure out. We can make it a joyous experience as we make it simple and accessible. Well, folks pay attention, then they act on it.
Tavis: Speaking of paying attention and acting on it, Dr. Oz, where’s the evidence for you, where do you see the data that suggests to you that people are paying attention to people like you and others where our health is concerned?
Because we are in so many ways such an unhealthy country, where’s the data that suggests that we’re listening to what you’re telling us?
Oz: Well, there are lots of folks pulling the oars, so you’ve got to look at a big-level picture of the country to figure out if we’re making a dent. But having had the First Lady on, having had the secretary of education on, having had folks like Mike Bloomberg, but also folks on the entertainment side as well who have health in their agenda, you sort of have to look at what’s happening in our society and you see a couple things.
First off, kids, for the first time, literally the first time since we started keeping track, the number of kids who are obese is not increasing anymore. Now that’s a big change, because when I started the show – and again, I’m not claiming this is all from our show.
Quite the opposite – it’s from a lot of people realizing that kids are the future and they always will be. So they’re putting an emphasis on it. But for the first time, kids, instead of increasingly getting fat, have sort of stabilized now.
Now, we want to decrease the number of obese kids, but at least that’s a movement in the right direction. We now can clearly point to evidence that folks who are overweight know they’re at risk for high blood pressure, know they could reverse their diabetes if they lose the weight.
So that doesn’t mean they’re going to act on that knowledge. What I have learned after having done this for quite a while is that people don’t change what they do based on what they know; they changed based on what they feel.
So if I can make you feel like you can control your destiny, all of a sudden you think you know what, if I can control my body, I can control the world outside of it. It changes the entire dynamic.
Tavis: When you ran that list a moment ago of some of the guests, and I know that was just a partial list, of course – 700 shows, you can’t list all of them – but you listed a few of the kinds of guests you’ve had on your show, and they happened to have been, a moment ago, public figures, which leads me to ask what happens when health becomes politicized?
Because if I took that list you just offered, I could give you an example for each one of those persons of an issue they have taken up that has gotten politicized.
Oz: Well, Tavis, that’s always the challenge. In politics, folks are trying to tear each other down, and I understand the multiple agendas that go into that. The nice thing about health is that health is an American problem. It’s not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem, it’s an American problem.
The biggest battles for health that we fight are not going to be won in Washington or in our state capitols, they’re going to be won in our living rooms and our bedrooms and our kitchens.
So the public officials that have been most impressive to me are the ones who have argued that what we need to do in America is make it easy to do the right thing. If you make it easy to do the wrong thing, which is unfortunately what we have inadvertently done so often, guess what? People do the wrong thing.
Good example are kids, going back to childhood obesity. If you take an average mom and she goes out and buys a not-so-healthy snack for the house, well, guess what? Even if they want to restrict the kids from getting it, the kids are going to get it.
They’re going to fight a rear guard, actually going to beat you down in your moment of weakness and take that away from you and eat it. But if you make the difficult decision in the supermarket and you only bring into the house healthy foods, the kids are going to have to eat what you’ve got in the house.
So they’re stuck eating foods that are healthier for them. Those are the kinds of dynamics we want to change. So when public officials step out and say listen, I want to make it harder for people to buy oversize juices, I understand as an American I want to have the right to buy what I want.
But I’m just going to make it a bit more challenging to do things that are harmful to you, and a bit easier to do things that are good for you. We nudge society in the right direction.
Tavis: So much of what you’re up against, as you well know, you’re the expert here, has to do, Dr. Oz, with environment. Whatever it is that you can attempt to do on your show that you do so brilliantly well every day, you can’t change the environment from which people are watching you every day.
So where our health is concerned, the mother you talked about a moment ago has to make food choices based upon what’s available to her in her neighborhood.
I’ll stop, because you get my point, obviously. Talk to me about how you navigate the environmental factors that you’re up against that you can do, respectfully, precious little about.
Oz: Well, first of all, I don’t want to abdicate the opportunity that all of us have in this regard. We vote with our pocketbooks three times a day when we buy food, so we have a lot of control over this spot, and I’ll give you two quick examples.
I’ll never forget, early in my education about television I started appearing on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” I ultimately went on with her probably 90 times. But one time sticks out more than any other, because at the end of the show, Oprah said, “Give me a prescription for America.”
So I said, “Okay. I want for the next two weeks,” because I would go on every other week, I said, “For the next two weeks I want you all to just buy whole-grain foods.” Simple request. Doesn’t sound very challenging, Tavis, does it? Pretty easy to do.
Oz: We got lots of notes back the next time I went on the show, arguing that people couldn’t find whole grains. They just literally couldn’t find them in the bodegas and supermarkets where they lived. They were living in food deserts.
Although I was in Savannah, Georgia this week and they were calling them “food swamps” down there. So it comes in different forms. But they were living in a place they couldn’t find what they needed.
So I’ve got a foundation that I’ve been very involved with called HealthCorps, so we went into the schools. HealthCorps is like the Peace Corps. You take these energetic kids that are college graduates, and instead of teaching them how to build dams and putting them in Botswana, you teach them how to talk to kids about heath, and get involved in communities and the health battles that are waged there.
So we got these kids to go into schools and to go to bodegas, and guess what we got the kids to do? We got the teenagers to go into their local stores and say listen, if you’ll stock 100 percent whole-grain bread or vegetables or fruits or whatever the issue may be, we’re going to get our parents to go buy from you.
Well, it changed the culture. We did this in northern Manhattan, but it can happen everywhere in the country. By getting local business owners, who just want to make a living, to know that kids and their parents are motivated to do the right thing, we turned food deserts into systems that actually can work for you.
I think we have a lot more control in this process than most of us acknowledge. It’s not someone else’s problem. It’s our issue. We can deal with it.
Tavis: Your show, my show, we all exist on the air because there are corporations and multinationals that support us, and I’m not trying to demonize them in any way. I understand their goal is to make money.
But how much of this, how much of what you and others who care about these issues are up against is corporate pressure, corporate power, corporate clout, and where money is concerned, if that’s the goal, it’s always going to be an uphill battle, yes?
Oz: Well, I’ve had my share of battles with corporate America, as you know.
Oz: Early on, we agreed that if we weren’t going to talk honestly about these issues, there was no point doing the show. So last year we had that big battle with the apple juice industry, and whether we have too much arsenic in our juice.
So I’m proud of the fact that we can speak up in America, where you make a ruckus and over time, the government usually does listen. In that case, as you know, the government just passed new rules asking all manufacturers to limit the amount of arsenic that kids can get in their food supply.
That’s a great example of how by being loud, we can make a difference. That stated, overwhelmingly what has impressed me is the fact that industry wants to do something that’s profitable, which usually means doing the right thing.
No one wants to be the cigarette industry. They want to make products that people are going to be able to use forever. So if you go to the fast-food industry and really look carefully – remember, there are 80 million visits to fast food in this country.
I can demonize McDonald’s and Burger King and Taco Bell, but these folks actually serve foods which are healthy enough for me and my family. They’re probably healthy enough for most people’s families.
Most of us don’t pick those choices, but they’re there for us. The challenge for us is how do we get engaged, and I’ll tell you a quick anecdote. I was having a conversation with a guy who works for a large company, one of the biggest food manufacturers.
I was giving them a hard time, saying, “Listen, you serve a food that kids love and it’s got a ton of sodium. We know salt is associated with high blood pressure. So what are you going to do about it?”
After hammering this poor soul for what seemed like an endless amount of time, he finally pepped up and said, “Listen, Dr. Oz, I’m going to share something with you, but I don’t want you to ever mention my product’s name. We took the salt out of it.”
I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “We took the salt way down. It’s about a third of what it used to have.” I said, “Well, how come you didn’t tell anybody? How come you don’t write it on the can? Why didn’t you advertise it?”
He said, “If we told people that we took a food that they think is a comfort food and took out the salt, they’d stop buying it.” His market data showed that America didn’t want to buy food that was healthy; they wanted to buy food that was tasty.
I think that we can buy food that’s healthy that happens to be good for us, and if we make that clear, these companies, and you mentioned that they want to make a living, they want to make money, they’ll make those foods for us. That evidence is already out there.
Tavis: So talk to me about our psychology. That’s a fascinating story you just told, which again underscores that we can’t always lay the blame at the corporation or the fast-food chain. These are choices that we have to make, and isn’t that what life is all about anyway – the choices that we make.
But talk to me about the psychology of what you just said, because that’s a damning indictment on the way we think about what we eat.
Oz: So many of us seek comfort in all the wrong places. We’re looking for love, at its very core. We want to be needed, we want to be part of communities, and when we can’t find it the way we’re supposed to find it, which is through connection, through intimacy – and Tavis, what you do so brilliantly is you build connection with your guests and people watching.
When we don’t find that in our own lives, we look for it often at the end of our arms, usually in the form of food, which we shovel into our bodies. Too often, we’re used to having high-sugar, comfort-style foods, high-carbohydrate foods, because it does actually satiate us.
Biologically, it is very comforting to the brain to have a lot of sugar coming in. But because it’s not good for us, and because it doesn’t really satiate the deeper need we have for that emptiness we have in our soul, that’s a bottomless pit you can’t fill with food.
So I think we’ve got opportunities, but manufacturers aren’t going to shift until we make it clear. Can I give you one other story?
Oz: I know the folks at Coca-Cola, just because I had met them years ago. The head of that company once told me that they’re the major beverage manufacturer in the world, and they often get demonized because they make sugar drinks.
But they sell a lot of very healthy drinks all over the world because people buy them all over the world. But if they try to sell tea in this country, it’s an uphill battle.
They can make whatever we want, but if we don’t want it, they can’t make it. So who’s going to go first? I think we should go first. If we start saying, “You know what? I’m looking for an alternative to what you’ve been giving me. Here are a couple of options. I’m going to start buying them. I’m going to look a little bit more carefully about what I’m purchasing.
Manufacturers will start delivering that, and some of the biggest growth areas for all these companies are actually in the health food arena because they have a better margin there and it’s a growing sector of their business.
Tavis: Our conversation now, Dr. Oz, about the psychology of the way we think leads me to ask this question, and I think you will take my point. I’m not talking about a particular segment of society; I’m talking about America writ large. What is the state, as you see it, of our mental health?
Oz: Tavis, we’re challenged when it comes to mental health. I think iconically, people desire to be part of a community, but they want to be their own person at the same time.
In order to do that, you need family structure, which plays such an important role in supporting you in your time of need. When you have stressors – and today in America we have quite a few; take bankruptcy as an example.
When you suffer bankruptcy you actually lose seven years off your life expectancy, we estimate. But if you have a family or social web that’s supporting you, your loss of life is measured in months. It’s not much at all, if any.
So I think the value of that connectivity is often lost upon us. Psychologically, when you feel alone is when you feel spiritual death. Think about it – if you’re driving along in traffic and someone runs you off the road, getting angry at them is a very normal behavior.
Don’t tell someone who’s angry to calm down – it doesn’t work, for good reason, because anger calls for action. But wishing they would die, that’s a whole separate emotion.
That’s called hostility. You need to feel like you’re a raindrop falling into the ocean of humanity. If you no longer sense that level of community, of connectiveness, then you’re isolated, and that isolation breeds all kinds of medical problems, including things like high blood pressure and heart disease.
But it also leaves you unable to cope with some of the challenges we face in life, and that ultimately leads to the demise of so many folks.
Tavis: I’ve felt compelled for quite some time now, years now, in this studio and on my radio show and beyond the studios to try to do something about the exponential growth of poverty in this country.
I’ve said many times, as this audience knows, that poverty is threatening our very democracy. I see poverty as a matter of national security, and clearly there is a link between poverty and health.
I just interviewed a scientist on my radio program the other days, Dr. Oz, and his research shows that the poor have trouble making good decisions, that poverty so debilitates you that it makes it difficult to make even high-quality choices, high-quality decisions.
In the work that you have done and continue to do, what are you learning, what are you seeing about the link between health and poverty and our decision-making?
Oz: We don’t usually publish this data, but as an example of the impact of poverty, not having a physician dramatically increases your chance of buying from most things we’ve measured, because it’s like a – you’re like the captain of a ship coming into a port, but you’re uneducated about the subtlety of how to dock the ship.
So you crash into the dock, spew your oil all over the bay, and mess it up for yourself and everybody around you. So we all need those coaches. The real issue with poverty, in my opinion, is the shame that accompanies it.
So we have these free clinics that we lead all over the country, and I’ve been east, west, north, south doing these free clinics. Most of the folks that come to these free clinics have jobs, Tavis. They’ve got jobs, but they don’t own a piece of the rock because they don’t have insurance.
So they feel ashamed. They feel invisible, like they don’t count. So if you don’t make people feel proudly like they’re part of the system, they begin to hide in the shadows of it, and that breeds a lot of pathology, including the depression and anxiety that goes along with poverty.
When you talk about the issues of healthcare and poverty, Martin Luther King, who we’ve been celebrating a lot because of the 50th anniversary of that great Washington speech, his famously, and I’ll paraphrase this, because I don’t remember the exact quote, but he said of all the biases, of all of the segregation that we see, it’s most evident is health.
Because when you’re unhealthy, you can’t be wealthy. If you want to be a wealthy nation, you’ve got to be a healthy nation. When we strip away the opportunity for people who are living in poverty to be healthy, we don’t give them a chance to excel.
Tavis: Not that poverty ever was, Dr. Oz, but certainly these days it is no longer color-coded. This is the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, and too many people of all races, colors and creeds find themselves in poverty.
But certainly, disproportionately, this reality hits people of color. What are you seeing about the advance, I hope advance, in the cultural competency of your colleagues and peers when they treat patients?
Oz: This has been a huge challenge, and just to be clear on this, this is not just some people who are blind to color – they’re literally unaware of what they’re saying and what they’re doing. I’m guilty of this, as probably everybody else who looks like me who’s trained in medicine.
It’s very difficult to imagine how your words are perceived by someone who’s often, as I mentioned, ashamed of what’s been going on in their life. They don’t feel valued, and then you say a couple words that really aren’t sensitive to what they’re going through, and you turn them off quickly.
I think this is one of the biggest battles we face in medicine. I on the show have done my best to invite folks on to talk about these themes, who are culturally aware in part because they grew up in those environments.
When you grow up in the streets of Newark, and people you know are all in jail or dead and you’re taking care of some of them who’ve been shot and you manage to escape, you’ve got a whole different perspective of what health can hold for your brethren.
That’s where we need as a nation to go as people wake up more and more to the realities of these biases. Again, I used to think it was just a matter of telling people what to do, but if you haven’t lived through it, it’s very difficult to imagine it.
Tavis: I sort of intimated this, Dr. Oz, at the top of our conversation. Let me be more specific and more exacting now. When I was a kid growing up, my mother was a huge fan of Walter Cronkite. The only evening news she would watch was Walter Cronkite because, as you know, Cronkite was, year after year, poll after poll, the most trusted man in America.
For a lot of Americans, you have become the most trusted person when it comes to medicine. All jokes aside, I know a grandmother, I kid you not, I know a grandmother of a friend of mine who keeps a three-ring binder, and this is just a little old Black lady.
A little old Black lady who keeps a three-ring binder of everything you say. She doesn’t navigate the Internet; she’s not of that generation, but everything you say, she writes it down. She’s a studious note-taker, a student.
She takes copious notes every day, and she has literally three-ring binders in her house of everything that Dr. Oz has said, and I am not kidding about this. I raise that only because I wonder how seriously, then, you take the trust that people put in you, how that impacts the decisions you make about what you say, the kinds of shows you do, the experts you have on. Because your whole brand is about integrity.
Oz: I spend more time on that theme and that idea than any other in my life, and again, I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve got a fantastic team around me that I do believe does a good job getting their facts straight.
I’ve got a medical unit made up of healthcare professionals and medical producers. They produce briefing notes for me. I literally study a homework binder myself, like the woman you were mentioning earlier.
Mine’s not three-ring, it’s on my computer, but it’s the same effect, in order to make sure I’ve got the content right. The issue of trust is a fascinating one. It takes years to earn it, seconds to lose it.
What Oprah gave me more than anything else was the trust that she had earned after 25 years of serving America, and she said, “Listen, don’t ever abuse this.” I pledged to her I would never abuse it, and I’ve done my best not to.
But you have to make decisions, day in and day out, about what you’re going to talk about editorially, and in the modern day, that means having to triage whether this is such solid information that you could talk about it really with a lot of confidence, or how do you talk about it if you don’t have that much data but you really think it’s the right thing to do.
So I’ll give you my litmus test. If I would tell my own family to do something, then I share it with my audience. I know when I do that I take chances. I sometimes speak before we have all the information, but that is the reality of the art form of medicine.
Medicine, unfortunately, is not pure science; otherwise, it would just be easy to do with algorithms. There’s an art form that accompanies it where you have to say when general I would do A, but because you’re who you are, I’m going to do B.
That’s why people, I think, come to me as a physician. That’s why I’ve always desired to give to folks sitting at home watching the show. And to that point, one other little idea that I was taught early in my career – although I’m called the host of the show and so are you, Tavis, in fact, we’re both guests, aren’t we?
Oz: We’re going into people’s homes, bringing our friends along, and we’ve got to be good guests for them. If you’re going to be a good guest, you want to do something that helps the person who’s inviting you kindly into their home.
So I always try to bring service, and try to do – and that’s the calling, I think, that I have and that the show always tries to deliver. We won’t always get it right. We’ll try to be honest and honorable when we get it wrong, but I want to come in and give you stuff that changes your life for the better and empowers you to help people that you love.
Tavis: Since we’ve both mentioned science here a couple of times in this conversation, before my time runs out, not to make you overtly political, but what do you make of the ongoing debates in Washington and other state capitols that for many of us represent an attack on science. I could offer you a litany of examples; I don’t need to do that with you.
Oz: Well, there are a lot of folks who are upset by the confusion of the modern world. They don’t think science has aided that process. Listen, what we’re all hoping for is hope, right? Hope itself.
Now what is hope? It’s not just the right outcome. When a patient’s talking to me about a life-threatening heart condition, they don’t want me to falsely assure them they’re going to be fine. What hope is to them, and I think everybody, is making sense of what’s going on in this complex world around us.
I believe science has a wonderful ability, in an unbiased way, to offer hope to many people who are confused, but it’s not the only way to find hope. So I completely get why people don’t want to be treated like chattel, why they don’t want to feel invalidated by their belief systems.
I don’t think that they need to be one or the other. There’s this wonderful concept of complimentarity. In the early days of physics in the past century, as it was being evolved from Einstein’s original ideas, there was this recognition that you could have two equally valuable ideas that could not possibly both be true together, but they were.
We’ve reconciled this in modern physics. It’s also true in life. There’s a possibility that you and I may have theories that are very different from each other; in fact, seemingly impossible to reconcile them, yet they’re both true.
Science has to be part of the equation. When you throw that away, there’s too much other opportunity for bias to hijack the conversation.
Tavis: Dr. Oz has just started his fifth season of his award-winning daytime show. How he found the time, with all that he’s doing, to squeeze in a conversation with me, I do not know.
But Dr. Oz, I’m eternally grateful for the chance to talk to you. I appreciate you, sir.
Oz: Tavis, I applaud you for all you do, and for bringing so much wisdom to all of us. Congratulations.
Tavis: You’re very kind. Congrats to you as well. That’s our show for tonight. Good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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