How Taraji P. Henson Heals Her Mind and Body During Tough Times

'When you know better, you do better.'
Image: Taraji P. Henson, a cast member in the FOX series "Empire," poses for a portrait during the 2017 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton on  Aug. 8, 2017, in Beverly Hills, California.
Taraji P. Henson on getting through life: "As long as I have another day, I can change it. Who cares what happened yesterday? All I can do is move forward."Ron Eshel / Ron Eshel/Invision/AP
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By Margaret O'Malley

Taraji P. Henson's television character, Cookie Lyon, may be battling for control of Empire Entertainment every Wednesday night, but in real life, Henson is focused on getting her spiritual and nutritional priorities straight.

While the Academy Award nominee has always been a spiritual person, crediting God and meditation for keeping her mind focused and her soul intact despite the pressures of Tinseltown, a serious bout with gastritis, an inflammation of the lining of the stomach, forced her to be more conscious of what she's putting into her body, too. Henson says, "When you don't know what to eat, you don't know."

This week, Henson teamed up with Special K to raise awareness about food doubt and nutrition confusion. According to a survey conducted by Special K, 90 percent of women question or doubt what they're eating every day. And some women spend more than an hour each day second-guessing their food choices — spending more time on thinking about what to eat than what they wear each day.

We sat down with Henson the week after the violence in Charlottesville to talk about healing your mind, body and soul and how to stay focused on your dreams, even when the path to health and happiness is anything but even.

How do you make sense of what happened in Charlottesville?

My son called me freaking out and he was like "Mom, I need to talk about your Instagram post." I said, "What is wrong? Should I take it down?" I could tell he was feeling the effects of the images he'd seen. I said, "Baby, what you're seeing is spiritual warfare. It's light vs. dark. Good vs. evil. The sun is chasing the moon. So, which side or you on? Are you on the side of love or hate?" These things happen to put a mirror up to humanity. What are we going to do? We got lazy somewhere along the line so we've got to pick up, put our boots on, unite and fight this thing together. Don't look at this as if this is the end. If you say this is the end, it is the end. If you say we're doomed, we are. Through love though, that's the only way.

We got lazy somewhere along the line so we've got to pick up. put our boots on, unite and fight this thing together.

Let's talk about your career. You originally went to school to become an electrical engineer, but became an actress instead. Who or what inspired you to make that leap?

That would be my dad. In high school, I auditioned for the performing arts high school and I didn't get in, so I thought that meant I couldn't act. You know, you're so young. You think rejection is the end of the world. As luck would have it, I failed miserably at electrical engineering because I'm not mathematically wired. Who knew? My dad said I needed to fall on my face and he couldn't tell me until I'd experienced it myself. So that's how I found my way back to acting — thank God!

The fact that you went to Los Angeles with 700 dollars in your pocket and a small child never seems far away from you.

When I decided to step out on faith, there was never really any turning back. I had a kid, I left everything and now I've gotta make it work so I went to work. My dad just instilled this unshakable faith in me. He lived by example. I watched him go from homeless to building it all back up. So when you see that and you know you come from that, it gives you the strength and courage to go on. You go, "What's the worst that can happen?" Oh, I lost my apartment, but I woke up the next day and I was able to make a better choice in life. I can change it. If the universe didn't need you, you wouldn't be here. So, that's how I move through life. As long as I have another day, I can change it. Who cares what happened yesterday? I can't change that. All I can do is move forward.

Don't ever compare yourself — that's a trap. You're unique. God made you for a reason and you need to shine your light.

What are some of the things you do in the morning to set yourself up for success?

The first thing I do is meditate, because, you know, there's a lot coming at us. With social media, you can't even find a quiet moment anymore. It's usually in the wee hours before anyone else is up and it's just me and the birds and squirrels. And I'll talk to God and I'll let the thoughts run through my head and if something negative comes up, I'll check it — right away — and adjust it. The older I get, the more I see that I need that. On the days I don't do it, I see that my energy is sporadic and I'm quick to pop off.

Taraji P. Henson, in Times Square, with Kellogg's Special K to rally women to eat with confidence and stop second-guessing their food choices.

What fuels your day?

Well, I recently had a health scare so I'm forced to make better choices. That's why this collaboration with Special K is right on time for me. I really have to eat right or I'm going to die. You really have to think about what you're ingesting. Essentially, 51 percent of women spend 61 minutes thinking about what they're going to eat it — that's like 15 days a year! It was a negative, the health scare, but I'm flipping it into a positive so I have a will to live. When you don't know what to eat, you don't know. When you know better, you do better. In the morning, I start off with a protein shake with fruit and pea powder or I'll have boiled eggs and fermented vegetables. If I'm on the run, I'll grab a Special K bar and a protein shake.

What's your favorite workout?

Um, the sofa? Yeah, so I have to work out with a trainer. After I had the health scare, I got rid of all the body fat so I'm focusing on building up my muscles so I look toned and not unhealthy. I do a lot weight training — and squats are involved because women like butts now these days. Remember when they weren't so popular? It's not about a six-pack or a certain size, it's just about health. I want to be the healthiest version of me.

Who's your career crush?

It's a culmination of people. God willing, I'll have a career as incredible and as diverse as Meryl Streep's and as long as hers. Or, Betty White! I hope I can make people laugh until I'm 90. And Carol Burnett. That woman saved me. I grew up in the hood, and to forget where I was, I watched her and I went into her world and I laughed. And she taught me how to make people laugh.

What would you say to someone who feels stuck in her career right now?

Get your bigger picture and don't lose focus. And don't ever compare yourself — that's a trap. You're unique; God made you for a reason and you need to shine your light.