Stephanie Hallett
August 15, 2017 4:40 pm
Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

After a health scare landed Taraji P. Henson in the hospital, she knew she had to make some changes to her diet. She wasn’t making smart food choices, she says, and she had a lot of guilt around what she was eating.

“I didn’t take care of my stomach, so my stomach started to turn on me,” she tells HelloGiggles. “I was forced to make better, healthier choices in my diet.”

This all happened around the same time Special K was conducting a survey about women’s eating habits, so when Henson was asked to join the campaign, she signed on right away.

“Special K just dropped out of the sky,” she says. “I swear, it had to be God.”

Special K surveyed 2,000 adult women across the U.S. about their relationships with food, and found that an astonishing 90% of women question or doubt their food choices every day. Plus, the researchers found, women spend more than an hour each day second-guessing their food choices.

“That’s 15 days a year, or more time than most Americans receive as paid vacation (10 days),” the company points out.

Henson joined Special K in New York on Monday to unveil a clock-themed art piece inspired by the results of the survey, and to challenge women to ditch their food guilt and own their food choices. We had a chance to speak to Henson by phone about the campaign, her health scare, and the incredible new film she’s producing.

HelloGiggles: Why did you get involved with this campaign?

Taraji P. Henson: I had a health scare myself, and it was due to things that I was eating, foods that weren’t good for me — drinking caffeine on an empty stomach, years of taking ibuprofen without coating my stomach first…And then on this journey to a healthier me, here comes Special K with these options and this message of owning what you eat, guilt-free eating. When you see the statistics, I know I’m that woman who’s spending an hour of my day thinking about food. Especially now, after what happened.

I felt that [my health scare] happened for a reason, and I needed to use my testimony to help other women. We’re too busy, [today’s woman has] too much going on to be wasting 15 days out of the year, an hour out of each day, worrying about food; there are healthy options out there that can cut down on your guilt.

HG: What kind of changes did you make to your own diet to start your journey to better health?

TPH: I stopped drinking coffee — I just kicked it, I don’t drink it anymore. I save my drinking for the weekends, only on the weekends. People drink alcohol, and just because you’re not an alcoholic it doesn’t mean it’s not destroying your body. You have to know what you’re capable [of drinking]. Five glasses of wine for one person, or five drinks for one person, your body might handle it — but [someone else’s] body might not. But that’s the information you need to know — when you know better, you do better.

It took me having this health scare — literally I was on my way to ulcer, which [can lead to] stomach cancer. That scared the life out of me. I’m thinking, ‘I need to grab the wheel!’ It was out of control. I consider myself a healthy person; who knew I was destroying my stomach? But I know now, so I make better choices. I prepare my own food, it’s a lot about food preparation. It’s a lot about education, educating yourself and knowing what you’re putting in your body and what it’s doing to your body.

HG: Why do you think women have so much anxiety about their food choices?

TPH: Society places so much on our body types and our looks and weight — it’s unfair. How come a man can go out and throw back a triple decker burger, fries, and a milkshake and not feel any way about it? But we do. Why is that? We have to change the narrative.

HG: What would you say to a woman who’s crippled by these food anxieties and wants to break free from that?

TPH: Educate yourself. Find out what works for your body. Find out what you should and should not be eating. If you know you’re not supposed to be eating dairy, don’t eat it. Find another option; there are so many options available to us. Start with Special K — you love sweets, start there. Instead of grabbing a chocolate bar, grab a protein bar.

HG: I’d love to ask you about your work for a moment. You seem to have a ton of projects going on right now, which is amazing. Which are you most excited about?

TPH: All of them! I guess I’m most excited about Proud Mary, because that’s an action flick and I’m the lead. It’s my first leading role where it’s my movie — mine mine mine! And I’m an action star, that’s amazing, right? There’s an influx of female power coming, and I’m right on the cusp of it — I love it. I’m so honored.

HG: You were so powerful in “Hidden Figures,” and the movie is still having such a huge impact in terms of policy and also just inspiring girls and women. What has surprised you most about the reaction to that film?

TPH: Nothing really surprised me about the reaction. I mean, I knew it was a hit because it was information that no one knew about. And you’re talking about a very important moment in time in America’s history that went unnoticed, that was overlooked. So I knew that [because of] where technology is going [and] where we’ve come from with technology, that this is a missing part of the puzzle that people would die to know about — and that’s exactly what happened. I was just so happy and honored to be a part of telling the story.

HG: What can we expect from Cookie on “Empire” next season?

TPH: Cookie has finally got her company. If you remember at the end of last season [Ed note: spoilers ahead!] Lucious had a whole accident and he can’t remember anything or anybody, so she needs to step into his shoes and take over the company. So you’ll see her in that power position that everybody’s been dying to see her in.

But what I love is that we’ll do a series of flashbacks from her time spent in prison, which I always wanted to delve into because that’s 17 years. That’s a huge chunk. You met Cookie after she got out of jail, no one knows Cookie while she’s in jail. That’s pretty dynamic — a woman going to prison for 17 years, away from her family. How did she not break in there? How did she not lose her mind? We know prison’s not for reform, we know that, right? You don’t go to prison to get better and come out ready to take on the world, you know? So how did she do that? I want to know.

HG: Do you feel like the way that her time in prison is being portrayed on the show is a fairly realistic reflection of what women go through behind bars?

TPH: The stuff that we’ve been shooting seems realistic. You’ve got bullies, you’ve got mean people, misery loves company — how do you maneuver through that, not get more time tacked on? How do you stay out of trouble? How do you keep your nose clean for 17 years, but still keep your dignity and keep the bullies off your back? How do you do that?

HG: You’ve achieved so much in your career — you’ve written a book, starred in all of these incredible films. What’s next on your list of life goals?

TPH: I think more producing. More producing projects that matter, more producing projects that are gonna change the world, change some of these cold, nasty, hateful hearts. I have one in the can with myself and Sam Rockwell; it’s called Best of Enemies. It’s a true-to-life story of these two real people — Ann Atwater, who was a Civil Rights activist in the early ’70s down in Durham [and] Raleigh. This black school burned down, so of course they had to integrate the neighboring school, which was all-white. The Ku Klux Klan and all of their kids went there, and they didn’t like it; the city was in turmoil.

Through this process [of integration], two likely enemies became the best of friends — Ann Atwater [and KKK leader C.P. Ellis]. He denounced the Ku Klux Klan, he learned how to love, and they were best friends until they died. Showing and proving that you can unlearn hate. It’s a true story, I’ve met their kids and everything.