Writer and Television Personality Daphne Oz Poses in Florida
Nick Mele

We’ll Have What Daphne Oz Is Having

On Saturdays, especially.

Originally Published: 

Daphne Oz’s approach to food might best be described as “gusto.” Watch any video of her preparing a meal — and there are many across multiple social media channels — she is not just eating food but savoring it: twirling spaghetti, licking ice cream from spoons, biting into her just-made Honey & Cardamom Salted Caramel Tart with obvious pleasure before walking out of frame with a saucy backward glance at the camera.

It might seem almost incongruous, then, to learn that her newest book, Eat Your Heart Out: All-Fun, No-Fuss Food to Celebrate Eating Clean, which is out this week, is a collection of recipes that “have consistently helped [her] lose weight” (in the words of her website). She assures me, though, that they won’t make you a “miserable hideous bitch for two weeks, or however long because you're hungry all the time.”

And I believe her. It all, frankly, sounds delicious: Spicy Broccoli and Feta Scramble! Summer Market Corn, Cucumber, and Crab Salad! and Soy-Ginger Turkey Meatballs with Miso Sweet Potato Noodles! Oz is adamant that “taking good care of yourself should always be delicious,” and she is passionate about the sensory delights and bonding rituals of eating and sharing food.

Nick Mele
Nick Mele

I met Oz, who, in addition to being a cookbook author, is also co-host of The Good Dish, a judge for MasterChef Junior, and a mother to four children under the age of 8, at the Mandarin hotel in New York City this March. Over peppermint tea, she told me she can’t remember a time when food wasn’t an integral part of her enjoyment of life. On Instagram, where Oz boasts 700,000 followers, she projects a kind of va-va-va-voom approachability. She is the same in person; she is quick to laugh and wears fun, bright colors, her hair in bouncy, platinum waves. As she spoke, she emphasized various points with her hands, which glittered with a stack of chunky gold bracelets.

Now 36, Oz grew up the oldest of four children in New Jersey. She remembers that her mother would pack baby Daphne up in the car and they’d spend most days at her grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania, where she saw “the type of connection and the type of deep, meaningful memory that food helped create.” She credits the women in her family “100%” for inspiring her “boundless curiosity” in food and cooking, and refers to her mom and grandmothers as her “original happy cooks,” a nod to her 2016 cookbook, The Happy Cook. One of her grandmothers was a vegetarian in the 1970s, long before it “was chic or easy to do that.” Her creativity with ingredients and recipes led to Oz’s “appreciation for a wide variety of cuisines and playing with vegetables as the star and grains and legumes as the star.” Meat was relegated to the supporting cast, a “side portion.”

The men in her family weren’t as active in Oz’s kitchen memories, although she speaks fondly about her grandfather’s stuffed artichokes and crab legs with beer and butter. Dr. Mehmet Oz, Daphne’s father, “would tell you right now he can't boil water.” “He's learned a lot along the way, but no, he does not do the cooking.” This is not to say that Dr. Oz had no influence on his daughter’s approach to food — as Oprah Winfrey’s on-air health expert and, then, as the host of The Dr. Oz Show, the prominent Columbia cardiac surgeon influenced millions of Americans’ views on food. Dr. Oz’s media rise coincided with cresting national anxieties about obesity, and he encouraged Americans to link their eating habits and their physical health. In his world, scientific research of varying degrees of quality and complexity was reduced to “eat raw garlic, avoid cancer,” and he promoted such joyless interventions as intermittent fasting, fruit and vegetable smoothie “cleanses,” and something called the “shrink your stomach challenge.”

The younger Oz grew up between the poles of her father’s approach (a man who has “never eaten a bag of chips in one sitting,” his daughter claims) and the parts of her family that reveled in the “overt culture of pleasure in food.” What Oz learned, she says, is that “there’s the largest chasm between the way you're wired to eat, or the way you'd like to eat, and the way maybe you ‘should eat.’”

When she was still a teenager, Oz wrote her first book, 2006’s The Dorm Room Diet, which describes the regimen of portion control, mindfulness, and regular exercise that she undertook after she couldn’t find any candid photos that she didn’t hate for her senior yearbook page. Although she was, according to the book, popular, beloved, and (aside from her persistent sports injuries) successful, she tells me, “I needed to lose 40 pounds. I felt that in my body, in the way that I functioned, in the energy levels that I had as a teenager.”

“The first time we talked about massaging kale, people thought it was, like, very lewd.”

Oz’s own particular dorm room was at Princeton, and shortly after graduating, she married her college boyfriend, John Jovanovic, a financial analyst specializing in the energy sector. At 24, she landed a job as a cast member of The Chew, a chatty daytime show which featured Top Chef alum Carla Hall and Mario Batali alongside Oz. Since establishing herself as a wellness expert with The Dorm Room Diet, Oz’s prescribed role was to “advocate for healthy recipes, but as part of a group that ate everything.” She says that back then, “it was this funny, strange world where I talked about quinoa and people were like, ‘Is that a loofah?’ I feel like the first time we talked about massaging kale, people thought it was, like, very lewd.”

After The Chew, which Oz left in 2017 when she was pregnant with her third child, she appeared as a guest and judge on various food-related shows and started a parenting podcast with Hilaria Baldwin called Mom Brain. Oz and Baldwin got to know each other through play dates and family dinners, she told NYMetroParents, and “inevitably we’d get sidetracked into these deep conversations about motherhood and womanhood and how you juggle it, who you’re learning from right now, and what product is saving your life.” The popular podcast, which featured interviews with guests like Natalie Portman, Eva Chen, and Jenni Kayne, stopped releasing new episodes around the time of the December 2020 scandal that erupted when Baldwin was accused of cultural appropriation.

Oz can talk with ease to just about anyone, and she conveys the feeling that she is someone who just gets it. The kind of mom who will make pancakes in the middle of the day if it will get the kids to “stop screaming and being crazy,” as she relayed on Mom Brain. Or who would sometimes rather eat popcorn for dinner after getting the kids down than put together a proper meal, as she told me. On Instagram, she presents her life as aspirational not in an unattainable Gwyneth way, but in a colorful, vibrant, joyful way. She snuggles with her kids. She wears fun, bright colors, and she posts picture after picture of herself savoring food.

Nick Mele

Oz, who now lives in Florida full time, occupies a particular place at the crossroads of food and wellness, one that eschews restrictive diets in favor of gentler interventions or, as she calls it in her new book, “resets.” Whereas her father drove home the relationship between nutrition and disease in militant, often reductive ways, Daphne Oz emphasizes the relationship between food and holistic health, including mental health and pure enjoyment. Speaking about her father’s approach to nutrition, Oz says, “I think he was just really excited by the idea that you could empower people to feel that sense of control and autonomy and agency in their own life. ... And you teach them, ‘You want to choose this food; here's a swap you could add that would add this much extra fiber, this much extra protein, fuel your body in this way, fight dementia, fight heart disease, fight these things that I'm going to have to treat you as a doctor if you don't adopt different lifestyle habits that can literally prevent you from ever having to end up, God forbid, on the operating table.’”

It’s all well and good to emphasize the link between food and health, but Dr. Oz’s tendency to overstate health benefits on the basis of limited evidence (including the use of malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat Covid-19, which he promoted in March and April 2020), has come under greater scrutiny since he ended his show in order to run for Senate as a Republican in Pennsylvania. Daphne, who briefly took over her father’s time slot on network TV in early 2022, told me she isn’t annoyed by questions about her father’s politics, since it’s “something very public and something a lot of people are curious about.” She ascribes her father’s political ambitions to the same source that she says guided his public persona as a television doctor. “This next transition feels so much in the same vein of, ‘I want to continue to empower. I need to act on things that I see that I'm not OK with. And I feel like I can do something good.’ I think that willingness to put your money where your mouth is, is very inspiring.”

When I suggest that family discussion about politics can certainly be difficult if you disagree about fundamental issues, Daphne agrees, saying, “I think it’s like that for a lot of families.” Ultimately, she adds delicately, “He speaks for himself mostly.”

In Daphne’s approach to food, it’s perhaps easier to see the influence of Nigella Lawson, whom she cites as one of her inspirations. Both are conventionally beautiful, traditionally feminine women who make eating look sexy and aspirational. If you harbor fantasies of wearing a silk robe while drinking a gorgeous glass of Bordeaux paired with a luscious chunk of French cheese, there’s a good chance Daphne Oz’s food content will appeal to you. Her videos, reels, and photos make you want to cook, want to eat, and she looks so lovely and happy doing it, that it’s easy to forget the fact that her new book has “rules,” even if you only choose to follow them for “a week, two weeks, or two months.”

Nick Mele

The rules of the reset are as follows: “No gluten, no refined sugar, limited dairy, take the weekends off.” The book contains recipes for Hidden Veggie Waffles, Creamy Parsnip Soup (which contains no cream), and Cauliflower Rice With Caramelized Onion and Hazelnuts. Oz was clear in our conversation that the book doesn’t reflect how she eats “all the time,” and unlike traditional diets with a capital D, you don’t need to stick to the rules for any set length of time to see “results.” “It's a totally sustainable plan that's just about rebalancing, fitting in your clothes, regaining confidence with food, and renewing your commitment to health when you feel like it's gotten out of whack or out of balance, through those periods of stress and celebration and pregnancy and all the other things that happen in your life.”

“I held onto this pair of jeans for the longest time after children, and I was like, ‘Oh, I'll get back into them one day.’ And literally, two years ago, I finally was like, ‘My hips will never be that size again.’”

This is the paradox of today’s softer approach to healthy eating: The cost of Saturday’s Bordeaux and brie is self-imposed discipline Monday through Friday. There’s more than a bit of old-school diet logic to this mentality. The reset’s stance on gluten, for example — that it triggers an inflammatory response for many people — brushes up against Dr. Oz-style oversimplification. “There’s nothing gentle about cutting out multiple major food groups for five days,” Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct, told me in an email. “And interspersing a message of ‘enjoyment and pleasure’ with the occasional brutal reset is the classic diet/binge/diet cycle.” (It’s worth noting that Oz also works as an ambassador for WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, which is currently rebranding from diet company to wellness company while offering basically the same program, aimed at helping people lose weight.)

But Oz doesn’t talk about her book in terms of weight loss. Instead, she mentions energy, empowerment, doing something really good for yourself, and feeling good in one’s clothes. Parenthood played a major role in changing Oz’s body image, and this informs her current food philosophy. “I held onto this pair of jeans for the longest time after children, and I was like, ‘Oh, I'll get back into them one day.’ And literally, two years ago, I finally was like, ‘My hips will never be that size again.’ It doesn't matter if I am 20 pounds lighter than I ever was when I wore these pants. My hips are in a different place now. ... That was a very powerful, empowering moment for me, of just like, ‘You're not aiming for this. Your body has shifted in a way that is permanent for the best possible reasons.’”

I bristle at the notion of good and bad reasons for one’s hips widening and ask Oz if, instead of worrying about clothes that might not fit for any number of reasons, we should encourage people to view body changes as a normal, inevitable part of the human experience. Maybe instead of “resetting,” we should just buy new clothes?

“I think that's a very personal choice,” Oz says, before taking a pause. “It depends. Are you buying bigger clothes because that's the size you're more comfortable at and that you feel you naturally exist at, and that feels like where you are at this time in your life, and you have other things you're focused on and prioritizing? Or are you doing that because you don't think you care about your health, or you don't think you know how to make any different choices, or you don't feel supported to make those different choices? Energetically, one is a very powerful position, and one is a position where that wouldn't make me comfortable, for myself.”

Oz in her kitchen in Florida, where she films many of her casual cooking videos.Nick Mele

The personal nature of health and self-image is part of what makes conversations about wellness so fraught. We don’t all have equal access to food and time, and even if we are fortunate enough to be able to decide what we put in our bodies, the choices we make have the potential to be made for self-affirming reasons or for self-harming ones. Am I eliminating gluten out of a desire for more energy? Or a desire to occupy a particular type of body because, in our culture, a particular type of body is unjustly treated with more dignity and respect than other types of bodies? Both?

(Even the science of nutrition is not clear on what exactly is a “healthy” or “unhealthy” food, says Dr. Gregory Dodell, M.D., of Central Park Endocrinology. “There may be an association [correlation] with an improved health outcome related to a certain food group, but proving causation is rather difficult. Variables such as activity, stress, income level, weight stigma, sleep, etc., must be taken into account.”)

With all this in mind, it’s hard not to see the broader implications of terms like “clean eating,” which is part of Oz’s book title. What does the notion of “dirty” foods imply about people who cannot or choose not to avoid gluten, dairy, and refined sugar?

“That's a very thoughtful point that I hadn't really thought about, because I feel like I've rejected the idea that there should be judgment around food,” Oz says. In other words, she is so over feeling bad about eating “dirty” that eating “clean” no longer sounds sanctimonious to her. Gluten-, dairy-, and sugar-free are just principles around which to narrow down the often overwhelming prospect of what to make for dinner. “It's a comfortable place to relax and feel like, again, that you can trust yourself.”

If rules make you, too, feel relaxed, you will almost certainly enjoy Oz’s Roasted Butternut Squash Pasta Bake, featured in Eat Your Heart Out, which can be made with chickpea pasta on Monday and regular old gluteny semolina, if that’s your thing, on Saturday.

Photographer: Nick Mele

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