Marilu Henner is an actress, dancer and author, a health, fitness and
cooking guru and a devoted mom. Now she's also an advocate for nutritional
supplements. In this revealing interview, she offers her thoughts on the
battle to support consumer rights and to create a better health care system in America.
“So, you want to know what my schedule is after I finish talking with you?” Marilu Henner says, in an almost breathless voice. “Today’s Tuesday, right? Tomorrow morning I leave Los Angeles [where she lives] for New York City so I can do the Tony Danza Show first thing Thursday morning. Then, I take a 9 am flight back to LA because my son has a sleepover birthday party. I have a 7 am flight to New Jersey the next morning because I’m speaking about mental health at a conference at a big country club. The next morning, I catch a 7 am flight back to LA for my son’s soccer games, one at noon and the other at 2. Whew!”
Trying to keep up with Marilu Henner would make anybody feel out of breath because the woman is energy personified. At 52, her schedule includes acting in movies, on television and in the occasional Broadway show, writing books (she’s authored seven, including Total Health Makeover and Healthy Life Kitchen), teaching online diet and exercise classes through her website (marilu.com), taking Pilates classes three times a week and raising two sons, Nicholas (10) and Joseph (8).
But now, on top of all that, the former star of the TV show Taxi has become a health and nutrition activist, speaking out in favor of the use of dietary supplements whenever she can. This past September, Henner testified at a hearing of the House Subcommittee for Human Rights and Wellness to advocate increased funding for research and full implementation of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). During her testimony, Marilu described why she believes consumers should have access to more information about supplements and why the products should be made more accessible through both government initiatives and private health plans. “I believe that dietary supplements should be part of a campaign to improve our nation’s health,” Henner testified.
Energy Times recently caught up with Marilu at her Los Angeles home for a freewheeling conversation. Here, this vibrant yet down-to-earth celebrity displays her passion for health, nutrition and consumer issues.
Energy Times: You’ve become one of the most high profile celebrities to advocate a consumer’s use of dietary supplements. What was your motivation to get involved in such a public way?
Marilu Henner: As a teenager, I had been a yo-yo dieter. I could be around 135 pounds and balloon up to 174. I knew I needed a different way of looking at my life. I couldn’t concentrate on those stupid diets where I could lose 20 pounds in a week and then gain it all back over a weekend. But after my mom died at 58 in 1978, I said to myself, “It’s not really about my body anymore, it’s really about my health.” I just became obsessed with health. I read everything I could get my hands on. I starting taking human anatomy classes, going to medical libraries and seeing nutritionists and doctors. And I started experimenting on myself, turning myself into my own guinea pig. It took me about eight years to put together a program. I always say that my health birthday was 1979, but it wasn’t until 1987 that I could say I was living a completely healthy lifestyle.
ET: Were you ever really heavy when you were performing in a show?
MH: Sure. When I first performed the role of Marty in “Grease” more than 30 years ago I weighed about 175 pounds. But I hid it well. When you wear those 1950s clothes you can get away with it.
ET: When did you start incorporating supplements into your health program?
MH: Before I became pregnant with my first son in 1993, I had never been a supplement taker. But I started taking prenatal vitamins and dietary supplements when I was breastfeeding and they made me feel really good. After the pregnancy, I just kept taking them because I was getting the essential nutrients that I couldn’t get from food alone. I was getting great stuff from my food, but with all the travel I do—you know, the eating on planes and in restaurants—I couldn’t always shop for organic food. I had a doctor who understood the value of dietary supplements and encouraged me to use them. I’ve taken them ever since and I recommend them to my family and friends, as well as to people through my books and classes.
ET: What supplements other than vitamins do you find helpful in your total nutrition program?
MH: I take vitamin E, omega-3 fish oils, antioxidants, garlic, coral calcium and echinacea supplements.
ET: So let’s get back to why you decided to testify before Congress in support of supplement use.
MH: I know that as soon as you put a celebrity face on an issue, people tend to pay a little more attention. When I was in Washington, I was able to tell Congress the personal stories I’ve heard about people who turned their lives around—from debilitating illness to vibrant health—when they got the information they need to make good choices. By good choices, I mean rejecting the manufactured foods of our society, with their over-reliance on sugar, meat and dairy, and the chemicals, hormones and steroids that usually accompany these products. Instead, we should be moving towards an organic, vegan diet that produces a sense of physical health. I also believe that a healthy diet includes the use of appropriate dietary supplements.
ET: Do you think that government is moving fast enough to reduce the restrictions on safe supplements?
MH: Things could always move faster. But I remember years ago writing letters on behalf of people who wanted supplements without needing a prescription. When I would tell people about the benefits of soy products or supplements, they’d think I was nuts. Now those ideas are mainstream. The floodgates are open and people want to know more. You can’t even keep up with all the information. I think that the government knows they’re not going to get away with making people have a prescription to take their vitamins.
ET: What is the citizen’s responsibility in all this?
MH: We’re in a real transitional phase and people should take responsibility to educate themselves. You have to question your doctors and recognize when something is or isn’t working. You have to find a health practitioner who really knows their stuff.
ET: As you said, there’s so much information out there, how do you decipher it all? How can someone be an educated information consumer?
MH: I know it’s very difficult because there are so many options. Believe me, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m glad I did the research. I think you have to read everything. You have to find a nutritionist/herbalist/doctor who’s the real deal and knows what they’re talking about. You have to recognize the symptoms in your own body and try to figure it out. I think if you start out with a good multivitamin, a calcium supplement, fish oils and vitamin E, that can be your base and you can’t go wrong.
ET: Isn’t a diet built on buying organic foods much more expensive?
MH: Sure, it’s a little more expensive. But there’s nothing more expensive than bad health. There’s nothing more expensive than food being thrown away because it doesn’t taste right. Organic fruit tastes so much better than the perfect-looking fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides.
ET: What’s your advice to people who want to start a workout and weight-loss program?
MH: I’m always saying to people, “Look, you walk your dog, your cat stretches, your hamster runs on a hamster wheel. You’re an animal, too, so go move, go do something.” I know a lot of people believe that when you want to lose weight you have to go on these 1,200-calorie-per-day diets. Well, my weight is always between 120-124 pounds and I eat close to 2,000 calories a day, but everything I eat is of quality. And I burn a lot of calories because I wear comfortable shoes and I move around in my life. I’m always strong, I never get sick and I feel like an animal.
ET: How do you view the future of healthcare policy in this country and where do you think nutritional supplements fit in?
MH: I strongly believe that the general public needs more access to dietary supplements to maintain essential good health. American research and development has come up with really great products, but the American Medical Association and the drug companies have stigmatized supplements. So what’s the result? Most Americans don’t have access to safe supplements because they are not covered by their health plans, nor recognized as effective by the federal government. This really needs to be changed.
I think we should take 90% of what we’re spending on drugs that barely keep people alive and start spending it on prevention, nutrition and changing lifestyle habits. In this country we’re all about curing the disease rather than curing the patient. We don’t look at the patient holistically and try to find out how the disease developed. Your doctor should be in charge of keeping you well, not keeping you in that strange state of, what I call, “dis-ease.” It’s like the medical and pharmaceutical establishment wants to keep you just sick enough so you’ll continue to be a paying customer. They’ve convinced people to think they’ve got to take a pill to cure themselves rather than use their own bodies.
ET: Do you think medical schools will start training doctors to treat patients holistically and focus more on preventative medicine?
MH: I think we’re seeing a lot more nutrition and alternative medicine specialists these days. And the general public is becoming more aware of health and nutrition issues then they were years ago. There’s this groundswell of people saying “Wait, I need more information. Wait, my doctor’s no longer God. I can’t just keep taking these pills and trying to figure out all these warning labels and side effects.”
ET: Do you plan on becoming more politically active on these issues?
MH: Absolutely, I want to work with any organization that wants to improve school lunch programs, improve the healthcare system and get people more involved in understanding nutrition and disease prevention.