wellness theories

Taraji P. Henson on Meditation, Exercise, and Why She Started Eating Better

Taraji P. Henson. Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Photos: Getty Images

Playing a character named Cookie, Taraji P. Henson was constantly tempted by the idea of a sweet snack. But when the Empire star recently landed in the hospital because of gastritis — an inflammation of the stomach lining — she knew that she had to modify her diet to make it less sweet (and less acidic and dairy-free, for a while). The Cut talked to Henson about her new approach to health, why she can only exercise during a specific time window (“If I don’t go by then, my mind will shut down,” she says), and the inhaler she uses when she feels like she’s going to “pop off.”

How I start my day: It always changes with my schedule. Some mornings I have to be up at 4 because of a set call. Earlier in the week I usually start early, and by the end of the week I start later. By Friday my call time will be like 3 p.m., so I don’t have to be up as early.

The first thing I do when I wake is meditate. I try to set my mind right. I try to tell myself that no matter what, today is going to be a good day, so when those curve balls come, I’m not taken by surprise. I can tell the days I don’t meditate, because I pop off. Things aggravate me.

When you say “meditate,” people think that you’ve got to be like: ‘oooohm oooohm.’ Meditation is just peace. You’re sitting with your thoughts and letting them play out in your mind until there’s total quiet. You can do that in the house. I find myself being in a meditative state all the time. I’ll be in my house doing things in total silence, but even though I’m doing things, my thoughts aren’t running through my mind. That’s a meditative state!

Sometimes I sit and burn my incense, but I try to let my mind settle its own voice. I have meditation apps where they have Tibetan-singing mode, but then I started getting into making my own bowls sing. That high pitch is actually very calming. It’s like an ohm without you saying it.

My approach to nutrition: I’m on a supplemental regimen to re-alkaline my body and to build the lining in my stomach. I was very bad to my stomach for a very long time, and I didn’t know! I’ve been living healthy now for three months, and even when I get off this special regimen, I know I’ll make healthier choices. I can’t have cheese right now. I use ghee butter instead of dairy butter. I also use a lot of coconut oil. I cook with it, I put it in my tea and drink it — and that’s also good for the hair and nails. I’m learning how to eat all over again. It’s like introducing a baby to solid foods.

I try to do my proteins. When I want a salt taste, I’ll do boiled eggs with my fermented vegetables. When I want a sweet taste, I’ll grab a Special K protein bar or protein shake. I just want to make healthier choices. I had a health scare and I want to live. My health scare came from me not eating right. You think just because you’re small and you work out that everything is coming up roses, until you take a look inside. There are so many things that we eat that are bad for us — hormones in animals — that affect you. Coffee on an empty stomach — who knew it could kill you? I know now.

How I like to sweat: I hired a trainer. I’m not a fitness guru. I like to work out, but I won’t push myself, so I need a trainer to do that. A great week is when I work out four days a week, but I usually keep it at three days a week, minimum. I’m big on weight-training because I’m so small – I need to build up. I love squats. My trainer has me do planks with weights on my back, which strengthens my core. I used to do boxing. It uses every muscle in your body and snatches you like that. [Snaps fingers.]

What wellness means to me: It means taking care of your mind, body, and soul. You can’t have one without the other. Physical health starts here [points to head]. If you believe you’re sick, you’ll be sick. If you believe ‘I can beat that thing,’ then you’ll heal because your body can heal itself. But you have to be nice to it.

How wellness has changed for me: I’m sleeping better, I have more energy, and I don’t have as many mood swings. You’d be amazed at the stuff that’s put in foods that acts like a drug. Like, sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine. You crave sugar because your body needs it because you’re addicted. Sugar was my favorite; that’s why I do Special K now. I’ll also make my own macaroons, which have the three things you need to survive: fat, salt, and sugar — coconut oil, coconut, and vanilla extract. It’s not that you shouldn’t have sugar, it’s the kind of sugar you should be looking out for. White sugar is the devil, don’t eat it. Find other ways: honey, agave, coconut, coconut sugar … just not white sugar.

My wellness struggle is: Working out. I have to get my mind right to work out. I don’t wake up like: “Come on, let’s go to the gym, yaaaas!” No. I have a window, where if I don’t go by a certain time, it’s not happening. It’s from 10 to 12, maybe 1. If I don’t go by then, my mind will shut down and I won’t be able to push myself to go. I know that about me, so I make sure to schedule my training session during that time.

My wellness advice is: When you know better, you do better. You need to educate yourself about the foods that you’re eating so you know what you’re putting in your body. You’ll look up one day and realize you’ve been damaging yourself. Be proactive in your health. Don’t wait until you have a scare to be a healthier version of yourself.

My Wellness Recommendation

“They calm my nerves and de-stress me. They look like inhalers — you know the kind you use to clean your sinuses? They have all kinds — for stress, cramps, appetite, you name it. When I feel like I’m going to pop off I’m looking for one of these. I have them in my purse like Chapstick.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

Taraji P. Henson on Staying Zen and Eating Better