Actor and comedian Magda Szubanski reflects on a powerful year in her health journey, and what she’s learned about the most common barriers to health in Australia
Magda Szubanski did not know what she was getting herself into when she agreed to host a national TV event on health in Australia. And she definitely didn’t know she’d walk away with a new health-obsessed bestie, in Dr Sandro Demaio.
Together Magda and Sandro learned more and more about the barriers to health facing everyone in this country, and the project grew bigger and bigger.
Before she knew it, Magda herself was at the centre of the story, undergoing tests and receiving results on a national broadcast! So when we say Magda has lived experience of the topics covered in this season of In Good Health, we really mean it.
Now, Magda sits down with bestie, Dr. Sandro Demaio, to reflect on what she’s learned about health this year, her vulnerability while making the show, and what she hopes to see for the future of health in Australia.
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Ashika Kanhai, Erica Randle, Magda Szubanski, Zach, Sandro Demaio
Magda Szubanski 00:02
Look, if you read the the ancient Greeks, I mean, they're all, Aristotle, all of them. They all talk about the Stoics, that exercise, good food, all that sort of thing. That human tendency to not do what’s good for us is a very powerful one. But I think we're at an interesting point now where, we're getting a better sense of what the mechanisms are, like, for example, the reward system, that understanding I think, is a real game changer. Because, you know, once you can hack into the operating system, then you have the possibility of changing it.
Sandro Demaio 00:36
I'm Dr. Sandro Demaio. And this is In Good Health. And that's my very good friend Magda.
Magda Szubanski 00:43
First of all, you just got to pretend like you're Dracula. We're talking so it's so....
Sandro Demaio 00:49
I want to suck your blood!
So it's yes, sure, like sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, not sugar. We can say, but we don't eat it.
Sandro Demaio 01:00
Magda Szubanski that is. Magda’srecently been investigating what good health looks like in Australia, and the barriers that come with it. Much like we've been learning about in this season of In Good Health. While making a new TV show Magda’s Big National Health Check for the ABC, she looked into everything from food labelling to the link between mental and physical health. And after talking to the experts this season, I'm curious to know from Magda what she's discovered, and how we as a nation can implement those learnings in our own lives.
Sandro Demaio 1:35
It's been a huge couple of months and...
Magda Szubanski 01:38
Yeah, several months actually, the show went a lot longer than we thought it was going to go. .
Sandro Demaio 01:42
Yeah it did. And it’s been an amazing journey, watching from alongside as your part time coach. But what's it been like the last couple of months and doing this, doing this health journey?
Magda Szubanski 01:53
Well its, its it turned out, I thought it was going to be a sort of a pretty easy gig in the sense of like, it was, you know, sold to me as like, you know, won't be too strenuous or anything like that. It ended up being massive, it went forever. But the show just changed so much. And I was really into the idea. As soon as Laurie Critchley , who's a producer who's done a fantastic job. As soon as she pitched it to me, I loved the whole idea of it. Because I've also been involved with like Phoenix Australia, and I'm, you know, very interested in all that thing of sort of the, certainly the state of the nation's mental health. So, you know, the very early stages I was discussing with a, you know, how things would go. And the idea was that it wasn't going to be that much about me. But then I think, in the end with the health checks, it ended up sort of just taking the show in a slightly different direction from what I ever thought it was going to be.
Sandro Demaio 02:48
What did you think it was going to be?
Magda Szubanski 02:49
Well, I thought it was going to be not so revealing of my personal medical status, you know, and that was a bit confronting, because it was like, do I really want more insurance companies and, you know, every time I eat a burger, someone coming up and goingdo you really think you should be having all of that. You know, it was a really it was, to me, it was a number of things. It was just very different from, but I think that's the nature of factual so documentary stuff like life takes you in, you know, we had that moment with me having the chest pain, it was like...
Sandro Demaio 03:22
Because a lot of a lot of people think that was scripted. A lot of people said to me, was that was that staged?
Magda Szubanski 3:25
God really? Oh as if.
Sandro Demaio 3:29
And I’m like no, I literally turned up your record one day, you had chest pain?
Magda Szubanski 03:33
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, because as I said, you know, the symptoms for women are so vague. And after doctor Ralph said to me, you know, given my bloods and all that sort of stuff, he said, if you have chest pain, again, go straight to emergency, so, you know, it's really hard to know, is it like, is this a heart attack? Or is it just having big boobs? You know, you don't know. I don't know, after all these years of having them. I still don't know. But yeah, so it does sort of highlight that fact that for women, especially the symptoms are really quite vague. But no that god that wasn't scripted at all, but it was, I have to say, well, there was two things like, in the end, I was, of course, hugely relieved, but you know, you don't know that's going to be the result I could have ended up going there and having my arteries chock a block full of Cadbury, you know, was what I would have expected., But, but the irony being, my heart turned out to be fine, but my brother who's a few years older than me, but he ended up having a massive heart attack, which was he used to smoke like he used to smoke a lot. So but you know, I think it's really interesting just within the one family, how you don't know which way the DNA dice are gonna roll and fall. You know, it's funny how you never know how these things are going to go, whatever you do, but I suppose for me, it's a couple of things like being older you just don't care so much. You're not so self-protective, I think and and you kind of feel like there is that thing, I think it's particularly older women, like, you just feel like, there's no time to eff around anymore. You know, and you do feel a sense of responsibility for other people or something. And yeah, you just you just give less of a fat rats, which is good, because you're, it's not to say that it wasn't confronting or sort of, you know, didn't make, it made me nervous at times. But it also felt like an incredible opportunity for people sort of through me. You know, I knew that as I was learning, other people will be learning. And I knew that if I did have that sense, I thought, if I don't go there, I'm kind of depriving people of an opportunity to really, you know, like, I was very anxious about what the results of my heart were going to be. But I was like, well, whatever it is, it is, you know.
Sandro Demaio 05:56
But not many people are getting that result on national TV.
Magda Szubanski 05:59
No, well, I've sort of I made a decision, I think, when I came out, because I sort of was so private for so long, for a lot of reasons, not least of all, because I'm much more shy than people would think I am. But after a while, this there's a certain freedom and just actually being really open, because like, what are they gonna do? It's all out there, you know. So and, and, you know, having played lots of characters, it's actually really nice, just to be myreal self.
Sandro Demaio 06:27
What's changed for you through this experience of the show and learning about the hidden barriers to good health?
Magda Szubanski 06:32
Well, it really changed my attitude a lot, to it’s really shifted the narrative that's going on in my head, which was starting to kind of happen anyway, with a therapist I was working with about diet culture, but but this in a broader sense, was about the structural things like the way that the system affects our health. And we're always encouraged to sort of feel that we're to blame. And I'm not, you know, I'm prepared to shoulder the responsibility, but it's not, the bottom line is that that model isn't working, because we're all getting fatter and more unhealthy. So some in that, you know, it's my mother used to nag me all the time. And I would say to her, look, you've been nagging me for 40 years hasn't worked. So why don't you stop? It's that same sort of an idea of that, if it's not working, then why do you keep doing it, I think there is a certainly a thing with, with overweight people, that there are certain sectors of the community that just get off on being mean, and they think we're never going to fight back. And they also feel a sense of moral superiority. So, so it was I’d sort of started a little bit down that journey, but then to look at the broader stuff, to discover things like, you know, how infrastructure and parking and public transport and all those things, accessibility, you know, proximity to supermarkets. I'd never thought about urban planning as a health factor at all. So that was really eye opening.
Sandro Demaio 08:09
What surprised you the most through the filming? Do you think?
Magda Szubanski 08:12
I think that was one of the ones that was the most surprising in a sense that you kind of know a bit the sense of, you know, because god knows I've been on that many diets. So I do know how obscure and minute the labels are on the on the back of food packets. I do have a sense of the way that the food industry operates to a certain extent not not, certainly this programme expanded my understanding of that, and deepened it as well.
Sandro Demaio 08:40
So, this is something we talked about earlier in the season of In Good Health, Ashika and her son Isaak went grocery shopping together, and spent a lot of time trying to decipher the package labelling on their food.
Ashika Kanhai 08:51
So, when I'm looking at the nutritional information, I do try and see what the energy amounts are by per serving as well as per 100 grammes. So this particular one has, out of a serving size of 45 grammes, nearly seven grammes of fat content, the saturated fat content is less than one grammes. So I think that's a good thing. I'm not entirely sure the difference between saturated and unsaturated. But I think it might be a good thing.
Sandro Demaio 09:30
Beyond the confusion in our supermarket aisles, Magda also learned just how much our broader environment impacts the way we eat.
Magda Szubanski 09:38
That was a real surprise to me that the way that planning, and that that means that really makes it very much the responsibility of government because people are always going ‘individual responsibility’, but if the fact is that, you know, if you're living in a suburb where you're 14 and a half kilometres away from the nearest supermarket, you know, and that the first things that go in when a new suburb springs up are the fast food joints. And I don't think we're ever saying there shouldn't be fast food joints, but we have priorities, you know. So that that means that whole argument that people make that it's about the individual is a nonsense, because the individual can't put in, can’t build a supermarket can't, you know, put in transport can't, you know, make sure that there's safe parks where you can go and exercise, you know, so those things are very much under the remit of government. So that was really obvious. But there are things as well, like, what really made me actually feel really optimistic was all the terrific community initiatives that that was brilliant, because I didn't know about a lot of that stuff.
Sandro Demaio 10:47
This is something we also talked about in our social connection episode, we visited the acapella community choir in Preston, and heard just how important the sense of community is to its members.
I joined the choir group around three weeks ago. There's a couple of things I get out of the choir group, I get social interaction, every week on weekly basis over here at Sacred Heart. And I also get to learn a new skill. At the choir group, it's been quite welcoming these past few weeks. And it's been much easier to make social interactions with people as everyone's welcoming, kind and often forgiving of amateurs like myself.
Sandro Demaio 11:30
And what about chronic illness? Did the stats surprise you?
Magda Szubanski 11:33
I didn't realise the full extent of chronic illness, although I you know, have them and I mean, as you get older, there’s not many of us who don't have some form of chronic illness. But some of them are ones I've been sort of struggling with for a longer period of time. But realising how many Australians and how badly we rank in terms of chronic illness, sugar consumption, all that kind of stuff. The increasing obesity, all those things, that was really interesting, but that could get you depressed. And what I loved the show did was actually took me to places that I didn't know about of communities doing brilliant things to fight back.
Sandro Demaio 12:11
Yeah, because there is so much shame. We've talked about this a number of times that there's so much shame and stigma around this issue of weight and health and mental health. And it just shuts the conversation down completely.
Magda Szubanski 12:24
Totally. Yeah, it really does. Because you just feel as though you don't have a leg to stand on as it were, you feel as though it's all your own fault, or whatever. And I think that certainly for mental health issues, you know, there's a real tendency, I think, for we know that men don't talk a lot about this sort of stuff and that's certainly not helping that kind of mindset. Women are probably a bit more inclined, just culturally, to talk about things - maybe certain groups of women, I suppose less judgmental, some more judgmental. But to me, it's just not rational thinking. You know, that you that you that all of these sort of moral judgments about your character. And the worst thing to me is that I've internalised those, and you do even now as I'm sort of trying to change my eating habits, it's those voices of judgement come in all the time. And certainly I know when it comes to discussing things like having anxiety, or mine was more of like a reactive depression, but anxiety is absolutely, I mean, God, the DNA in on both sides of my family is so tattered from war trauma, like on the Scottish Irish and the Polish side, like, you know, it’s hardly surprising we're all nervous wrecks. But just, I think the whole thing of destigmatizing all of that. And it sounds like such a, we sort of say that phrase, don't mean you kind of forget what it actually means. Which is just that, you know, what you don't want people thinking is that because you're prone to anxiety, or any of those things that you can't think, or be part of the conversation, or that you're stupid, or that you're irrational, you know,
Sandro Demaio 14:07
Or you don't have a right to have an opinion or have a right to say, Hang on a second. I want something better for my health or I want something better for our health. Yeah, yeah. You know, that shame shuts down the people's feeling that they can say something or want something more?
Magda Szubanski 14:23
Well, shame is a way of it's a way of ostracising people. So, I suppose I, you know, then they're never the sort of subgroups I would have chosen to have been in the fat gay one. I was like, Please, Jesus, give me another cross to bear. But now they're the ones I got. And two of the most vilified groups in society. And you know, I have a very keen sense of the way that shame affects you and becomes your internal monologue. And, I mean, Brene Brown, I think has done brilliant work about it. She said going in with her measuring stick and looking at shame. Similarly, Martha Nussbaum, you know, like, that she talks about the way disgust, the feeling of disgust should have no part to play in legislation, it’s like, be disgusted as you like, but you're not allowed to base the laws on that just because you don't like it. So I think the more we become aware of that, the greater our ability to properly understand what's going on
Sandro Demaio 15:32
The difference between what we know and what we do. It's far more complex than just like, yeah, poor choices, or stupidity or whatever it is that like people will, you know, point the finger at the individual or, or at each other.
Magda Szubanski 15:45
Look, if you read the the ancient Greeks, you know, I mean, they're all you know, Aristotle, all of them, they all talk about, you know, the Stoics, that, you know, exercise, good food, that sort of thing, you know, that that human tendency to not do what's good for us is a very powerful one. But I think we're at an interesting point now, where we're getting a better sense of what the mechanisms are, like, for example, the reward system, that understanding I think, is a real game changer because, you know, once you can hack into that operating system, then you have the possibility of changing it. Yeah. But for me, it was really fortunate to have you on board because you were so compassionate and non-judgmental so I felt safe, you know, to go into that stuff. Because I certainly have had doctors in the past and I can guarantee you, there's not a fat person out there that hasn't had a snooty, contemptuous doctor, say, we'll just, you know, eat less and move more. And even if that was actually the answer, which I think we know, probably isn't, even if that was the answer, just the way that it said to you, you know, like, I'm not a stupid person, normally lazy person. But, yeah, this thing. I mean, I gave up smoking like that, you know, but this thing is just Oh, my God, it's based, you know.
Sandro Demaio 17:05
Now, I might not be as well read in ancient Greek philosophy as Magda. But what she says about motivation does remind me of my discussion with Dr. Erica Randall on the previous episode of In Good Health. We talked about how important movement and exercise are for our health, of course, but what really struck me was all the ideas Erica had for making movements something you really want to do, not just something your doctor says you should do.
Erica Randle 17:29
Different people are motivated by different things. And they feel differently comfortable in different situations. So for some students, it was well, I just want to be active by myself. So the gym is perfect for them. But I actually want to do it with my friend because that social connection is also important.
Sandro Demaio 17:46
But I think it is, it is really important, though, because one conversation we had in, in the show, and it was a really, as a conversation I'll always remember, is how important it is to look beyond weight, and to also be guided by how you feel and how you feel about yourself. Yeah, can you tell me more about that, because I think that's a really important message for people to know as well.
Magda Szubanski 18:09
Well, I think the body positive movement, and really, we can thank African American, particularly African American women for really shifting the dial on this stuff enormously. It's that thing about being as healthy and as happy as you can be at whatever weight you are, because, you know, I think getting fat, or preventing people from getting fat versus reversing that they're two different kinds of things. So you know, it's holding that space, which is quite complicated, because, you know, as I said to you, I can't stand having one more person telling me what I have to eat, I cannot tell you how many times I've tried, but by the same token, hello, prediabetes like really quite serious pre diabetes. So there's a thing of going, your body doesn't lie, and your body isn't trying to rip you off, or make money out of you. Or, you know, tell you that you're not lovable unless you're thin. Your body doesn't have any of those agendas. It's purely innocent. And it's the thing, your body is the thing that has your best interests at heart. So it's that thing of going, okay, I've got to find ways to reconcile those two things, you know, because there are so many voices in my head, and I assume in everyone else's head too, and many of them are not kind. But you know, I've got to be realistic, you know, I don't want to get diabetes. I don't want it to sort of tip over into the next stage. So I have to find a way to honour both of those things.
Sandro Demaio 19:54
The thing is that we get fixated and very judgy about weight as a single element, and as you say, at a population level, we want to try and keep people healthy. And weight is part of that. So what do you think the solutions are, as you come out of this process? What do you think the solutions are for the state of the country? Because you met the health minister, you've seen amazing community organisations, you've had to have me banging on around you for, you know, three months. I mean, what do you think?
Magda Szubanski 20:24
I think, well, now that I'm a health expert, really, after a few weeks. I told you, I'm an honorary doctor, I actually am - you're just a normal doctor. So there you go. But the sense I get is that those community initiatives and that sort of education, like I thought, the stuff that Deakin University was doing with the kids in Mansfield, you know, teaching the older kids at the high school how to eat, how to cook how to prepare food. I mean, that's the other thing you, you know, your background Italian, right. And he was, like, I just told her friend, and she was saying, you know, all the old Italian and Greek sick, that they end up going into nursing homes later, because they're always physically moving, they've got the garden pots, they're doing all that stuff, that eating the Mediterranean diet. And really, we just kind of have to introduce that to the whole country. You know, and it's such a charming, lovely way La Dolce Vita, you know, to, to, to live, you know, I mean, I love going to the community gardens in St. Kilda, that's, that's part of it. But clearly, the other thing is, you know, as they say, knowledge is power, information is power. And if you're unable to see at a quick glance, whether or not a product in a supermarket is healthy for you and your children, there's a problem. Because we know that people are time poor and we know that people are eating these sorts of foods. So it does seem to be, to me, not just a no brainer, but really galling that food the food industry is allowed to get away with making it really difficult for people to say the least. I'm not going to say dishonest because I don't know what the litigation situation is. But I am going to say obfuscating and also the amount of sugar that's in foods too, I think, you know, that's an obvious thing that can be changed, but I think those community initiatives so including things like just to go on to the mental health stuff, like you know, people having resilience training, understanding what trauma is, understanding mental health, having those sorts of conversations, people moving more, all those kinds of things. And there's a real joy to in when when you do things with other people in a community sort of setting, so it left me ultimately feeling very hopeful.
Sandro Demaio 22:56
What do you hope you see in 23 for the health of Australians, you know, do you have any things you'd love to see Australia do or even the government do?
Magda Szubanski 23:06
I would love to see mandatory labelling. I would really love to see just a system developed that is clear, and effective, you know, simple and effective. And I really really hope that the food industry actually gets on board with this and supports it because you know, we don't we don't need to be warring parties in this, but we're all, it's in no one's best interest if everyone's getting fatter, sicker, you know. The strain on the on the health system is terrible for everyone. We really have to start looking collectively and globally about all this sort of health things I think and being more intelligent about solutions finding ways to work with one another I mean
Sandro Demaio 23:53
If you need someone to be your sidekick to the world looking for solutions I don't know anyone
Magda Szubanski 24:03
I don't know what's gonna happen next but I think you know that I'd love for you to be, you’re my work husband. Oh, bless, bless.
Sandro Demaio 24:15
You heard it here first.
Magda Szubanski 24:17
Sandro and Mags.
Sandro Demaio 24:18
Sandra and Mazda.
Magda Szubanski 24:26
Sandra and Mazda hour. I hope people pick up on the stuff from this and I hope there's more things like the Deakin University all that stuff. My coffee’s wearing off now.
Sandro Demaio 24:39
Power to the people, all the people doing amazing stuff. Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I wasn't talking about you, no not you.
Magda Szubanski 24:47
I don't want, I neither want nor need you to talk about me Sandro, quite frankly.
Sandro Demaio 24:55
Thanks Mazda. You Are. That's national treasure and my official work wife, Magda Szubanski. On behalf of all of Australia, thank you Magda for so generously sharing your learnings with us with such honesty and vulnerability. Find out more about Magnus discovery into what health looks like in Australia by watching Magda’s, Big National Health Check on ABC iView. And if you want to get a better understanding of some of those barriers to health that Magda and I've talked about, make sure you listen to the other episodes in this season of In Good Health, all available now, wherever you get your podcasts. And a big thank you for joining us on this final episode as we wrap up season four. I hope you've learned that while it sometimes feels a little overwhelming to live healthy, you have a bit more of an idea of how to navigate the maze of hidden barriers together. In Good Health is a VicHealth podcast produced by DeadSet studios and hosted by me Dr. Sandro Demaio.