Celiac in College: Talking to Peers about Celiac Disease

For most people, the start of college ushers in a period of fresh starts: you begin a new life in a different setting surrounded by unfamiliar faces. In the midst of this overwhelming sense of newness, however, your celiac disease carries over from your past life. Your new surroundings lie far away from the comfort of home, where your dietary needs were common knowledge.

Navigating college life with celiac disease brings an entirely new set of concrete challenges (as seen in Celiac in College: The Silent Struggles), but there are also mental and emotional roadblocks during this period of transition. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on the role of celiac in my transition to college.

I don’t want to make celiac disease the first characteristic people knew about me.

Since I was not diagnosed with celiac until eighth grade, I was fortunate to experience the majority of my childhood without having to read nutrition labels and worry about cross-contamination. I had the freedom to eat all the cake that I wanted at birthday parties, and I could innocently say “yes” to any snack that my little heart desired. By the time of my diagnosis, people in my small town had a well-rounded understanding of me as a person, so I did not have to wear the label of the “the gluten-free girl.” I never allowed celiac disease to become central to my identity and I never intend for that to happen.

In contrast to the familiarity of my hometown, college threw me into a new environment where no one knew anything about me. The first several days were dedicated to social events aimed at helping first-year students settle into their new home for the next four years. Unfortunately for students with  dietary restrictions, most of these events revolved around food.

While there is nothing wrong with having celiac disease, I did not want my rigid diet to be the first thing that people knew about me. I was never “the gluten-free girl” in my hometown, but I felt that could become my new label if I was not careful. I often scheduled my meals around these social events rather than inquiring about the ingredients, preparation and handling of the platters of food. While this strategy allowed me to get to know people before they learned of my highly restrictive diet, the topic inevitably came up at certain food-centric events, which leads me to my next point.

When people find out, it’s best to own it rather than downplay the severity.

Once people know about your celiac disease, the last thing you want them to think is that you dine gluten-free for the “trend.” If your relationship is built upon the belief that you avoid gluten as a preference rather than out of necessity, your needs may not be taken seriously in the future when picking out a restaurant or requesting food for an event.

When people inquire about my gluten-free food, I usually ask if they have heard of celiac disease. If they have, then I tell them that I have celiac and the conversation ends there. In the event that they have not heard of celiac, I briefly explain that it is an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten. In response to this, people generally react with a sympathetic “Wow that sucks!” or an inquiring “What can you eat then? Isn’t gluten in everything?” The best way to handle these questions is to reinforce the severity of the disease while assuring the listener that maintaining the diet is not that difficult after you have adjusted to the gluten-free lifestyle.

Sometimes self-deprecating humor helps, if confidently executed.

Every night, I email my dining manager my meal orders for the following day. Then, a chef safely prepares my meal in the back of the kitchen for mealtime pickup. Even though I have carried the label of “celiac” with me for the past five years, something about carrying a shrink-wrapped plate from the back of the kitchen, through the food lines and into the packed dining hall is still embarrassing for me.

When people inquire about my unusual accommodation, I find it best to respond with some self-deprecating humor. I own the fact that I have to eat gluten free and usually make a light-hearted joke referencing my personalized plate. While using humor as a defense mechanism may not be the best method of coping for everyone, it works for me.

While most of these strategies help alleviate the shyness that I have surrounding the topic of celiac disease, I am by no means implying that it is something that you should be ashamed of. Until we have a cure, celiac disease is something that you have to live with, and when well-controlled, it is rarely burdensome. However, the nature of college life can complicate celiac disease, and the ignorance of college students often leaves students with celiac disease susceptible to unwarranted judgements.  We all have our own ways of coping with the transition to college life, and hopefully some of my methods can help others dealing with similar issues.


Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a first-year student at Harvard. Following her diagnosis with celiac disease in 2013, she maintained a strict gluten-free diet with relative ease through her junior high and high school years. However, college life posed unfamiliar challenges and she struggled to adjust to her new dining situation. She hopes that sharing her experiences can help others with their transition to gluten-free dining in college.

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