Gluten Free in College: A Survival Story

by Katie

When I was in college, I frequented fast food restaurants, loved pizza, and generally just ate what I felt like at the time. I’d always done that—I’d never had to watch what I ate, ever. Sure, I was nauseous all of the time, got frequent stomachaches and migraines, and had trouble focusing, but those weren’t related to what I was eating—right?

Wrong. So, so wrong. I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease my third year of college. Gone were the days when I could eat what I wanted or enjoy the grab-and-go snacks between classes. In fact, gone were the days when I could eat on campus at all. So what do you do as a college student that suddenly can’t eat college food? Well, you get depressed. Then you get mad. And then you do something.

I became an advocate for gluten free awareness, rallied formore gluten free options on campus, and started asking all of the cafés if they would carry gluten free food. I also participated in the spring and fall student festivals, finding other people who had to remove gluten from their diet or had other food allergies, and asked them how they dealt with it and if they wanted to join me in my campus wide campaign. I started a dialogue with the school administration about increasing our allergy-friendly food options and started researching the American’s with Disabilities Act and how it related to Celiac Disease. Although it wasn’t an easy overnight transition, I took what was a depressing diagnosis, and with my new-found energy and better health, turned that diagnosis into something that I was passionate about.

My parents were amazing, and gave me the encouragement I needed when I was down. They would put together wonderful care packages full of my gluten free favorites, including not only food items but also products like gluten free toothpaste and my favorite gluten free lip-gloss. My dad would call all of the restaurants near my apartment and campus, asking them if I could eat there, and then e-mail me the list; my mom sent me a new toaster and cooking utensils, and even found these great toaster bags that I could use to prevent cross-contamination in the communal dining area toasters.

Of course, I still self-sabotaged (more often than I would like to admit!), because in spite of all my efforts, it was still sometimes difficult to find food I could eat. So, I would grab a slice of pizza and relish the greasy gluteney goodness, followed by staying in bed for three days. Needless to say, it’s not wise to go that route! So how can you prevent these instances of gluten self-infliction?

Prepare. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Pack a lunch, of course, but also always pack lots of snacks. Pack at least 2 more snacks than you think you need—if you don’t end up eating them that day, then you can save them for the next day, but it’s always better to have more than less. Concentrate on the snacks that you can’t buy on campus, like gluten free crackers, pretzels, etc. Snacks like fruit and yogurt are nearly always available in college cafés and convenience stores, so don’t waste space packing them. This habit will prove be very helpful in all areas of your life, not just school—when you go out with friends, when you go to work, or when you‘reon a plane, for instance.

In addition, if you live in a dorm, it is absolutely essential to talk to your dining hall managers, chefs, school dietitian, and even your floor’s R.A. If you can do this before the new semester starts, even better! Remember that they want to help you, although sometimes they don’t know how. Help them help you! Tell them what gluten free foods you like, what you’d ideally like them to carry, and offer to help teach them how to prevent cross contamination.

The most important thing to remember about being gluten free in college is this: be your own advocate and have as much fun as possible! Find other people that are gluten free, and join up with them. Make it a fun challenge to find good gluten free food with your friends—my challenge was to find the best gluten free pizza in town, so we would all go out gluten free pizza hunting on Friday nights!

For more in-depth knowledge and guidance, Rebecca Panzer, MA, RD, LD wrote a Gluten Free Guide to College. Ms. Panzer’s research on gluten free college students led to this wonderfully informative guide full of tips and tricks for gluten-free college students!

What do you do for your gluten free student, or what were your experiences as a gluten free student? Share with us!

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