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Iron, Popeye and Me: What you need to know about iron deficiencies

Iron. What comes to mind? The cartoon character Popeye? Maybe spinach?

Yes, I thought about Popeye and that canned spinach he carried with him in the times he needed an energy boost to save the day. Over the course of my iron depleted life, despite eating a lot of spinach, I realized there’s more to iron than meets the “Pop”eye.


I first started feeling dizzy. It happened when I would sit at a desk; it happened when I would go on a walk. In fact, one time I was hiking with a good friend when I literally felt the earth shift and I uncontrollably walked into her. It was like the movie Inception. I chalked it up to working long hours and low blood sugar. Next came the brain fog and for woman like me, one who prided herself in meticulous planning, I started to slip up, forget and miss details in my personal and professional life. Nothing was clear in my mind like it used to be. My skin paled, especially my face. My periods, well, they were always heavy, and I thought nothing of this. I started having more canker sores and oh, how could I forget the gut distress? There was Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and migraines, too. At first, I just thought it was the result a stressful professional life. Everyone told me that if I reduced the stress in my life, the symptoms would resolve themselves. I was wrong.

At the time, I thought I was eating a healthy diet. I wasn’t. And I sure thought I understood iron. Well, I didn’t.

The Doctors

I’d consulted with many doctors, trying to determine the root cause of my condition. Blood test after blood test, and appointment after appointment concluded that my iron stores were fine. Take more magnesium, they said, because of my possible depression. Take psychotic drugs because maybe I was just anxious. Or, maybe just see a therapist because my symptoms seemed psychosomatic in nature. But, I wasn’t fine, and little did I know that my iron levels were getting worse. Each day, I woke up feeling jet lagged, yet I hadn’t traveled anywhere nor crossed any time zones.

It was only after speaking with my dentist (I mean, why not? Doctors were to no avail) that I was referred to a new doctor. It was with this new doctor that I learned the most about iron and what was happening to my body.

Firstly, my new doctor measured two indicators for my suspected iron deficiency or iron deficient anemia: Hemoglobin (which is a part of the standard blood count) and Ferritin levels. What on earth was Ferritin? Ferritin stores iron in your blood. It’s like a protein warehouse and it builds up inventory. My Ferritin was not a warehouse; I was told it was a very sparsely filled suitcase and not getting absorbed in my body. I need warehouse levels of iron in my blood, not hand luggage.

There was so much more to iron and I was sent to a nutritionist. I learned that there were heme- and non-heme iron types. And did you know that heme-iron is absorbed 3-4 times better than non-heme iron? (1) Now you do. Heme-iron foods are the lean meat, fish, and even shellfish. Non-heme iron sources include legumes, leafy greens, eggs, nuts, and whole grains.

Food Sources

While in my journey, I realized nutrition is not finite. There is no absolute. Your body responds differently to different foods; what works for one person, might not work for another. I ate more plants, fruits, and vegetables, while also eating the heme-rich meat to support faster iron absorption. My diet immediately changed. I took a vitamin C cofactor, which helped absorb the iron pills I had to take daily. And I needed to limit caffeine. Portion sizes were reduced, and processed foods and snacks were no longer part of my vocabulary. I also ate slower during mealtimes. I already liked to cook, but I really became creative in the kitchen concocting vegetable faux meatballs made from eggplant, cauliflower or zucchini, and dark chocolate desserts made of disguised smashed avocado. Finding the combinations that worked for my body were the key lessons learned here.

I did quite a bit of research during this time to learn about good gut health, creating a personalized nutrition approach and experimenting endlessly with what, how and when I ate food. Sharing this very important sentence was critical to my success to heal and get better. It’s not a one size fits all approach and trying a variety of foods was important to see what worked best for me. My symptoms slowly started to improve after implementing these approaches, and while it took time, it’s time that I am grateful for as I learned so much about my body, how to care for it, and what to do, as well as what not to do. Certainly more much than spinach. Sorry, Popeye!


  1. Boron/Boulpaep, Medical Physiology, 3rd Ed., Elsevier 2016

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Shaun McMillian

Shaun McMillan works at Johnson & Johnson, with Women’s Health advocacy as a core competency, with certification from Cornell University in Servant Leadership and a Master’s degree in Medical Sociology. She advances women’s health issues primarily for women in their 40’s and also volunteers with a group of oncologists publishing cancer research. And she loves to create and make good food from fresh, high quality ingredients!

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