The pain following gluten exposure may cause some degree of food-related stress in most college students with celiac disease, and rightfully so. While we must accept celiac disease as a fact of life, food should not serve as a constant source of worry.
These tips have helped me prevent food-related stress both on and off my college campus, and they will help to make every dining experience enjoyable rather than stressful.
Bring a variety of nutrient-rich, calorically dense, nonperishable snacks
The confines of a gluten-free diet often lend themselves to situations where there are few, if any, gluten-free options available. In these situations, the only thing worse than not having any snacks is lugging around snacks that will not fill you up, take up an exorbitant amount of space in your bag, or are at risk of melting, crumbling or rotting.
I like to keep spare RXbars and GoMacro bars in my backpack or purse as portable, filling snacks. The balanced macronutrient profile will help to keep you satiated without filling up your bag, and they come in a delicious variety of flavors.
Tip: when selecting bars to keep in my bags for emergency situations, I always go for the non-chocolate varieties to ensure that I will not have to clean up a melted mess upon unwrapping.
Research restaurants in advance
Dining out with college friends is supposed to be a fun, relaxing experience where you can get off campus, enjoy time with others and try new foods. However, the risks of gluten exposure and cross-contamination throw a wrench in that plan for those of us with celiac disease.
To prevent this, it helps to do your research before dining out. I have relied on the Find Me Gluten Free app to scout out restaurants and read reviews since my celiac diagnosis in 2013. The ability to search by address or current location allows you both to select a restaurant in advance or choose spontaneously with friends (we all know that is how most things go in college). Filtering results by category, best-rated and even celiac friendliness allows you to tailor your restaurant selection to your specific wants and needs.
Sometimes decisions on restaurant selection are out of your control and you find yourself in situations with a lack of food availability. Whether you are stuck at a restaurant without any gluten-free options or you feel at risk for cross-contamination, at least you have your variety of nutrient-rich, calorically dense snacks to hold you over until you find your next safe food option!
Be open about your dietary restrictions
If you do not tell people that you need to eat gluten free, they will not know that the need exists when making plans. This applies to friends as well as restaurant or dining hall employees. Luckily, the rise in gluten-free awareness over the past several years has helped make dining with friends a more fun, social experience rather than a Q&A session about your special dietary needs.
At restaurants, I always notify my server right away that I have celiac disease (and if their only response is a confused look, which happens often, I just label it as a severe gluten allergy). Then, when I order a gluten-free plate, I re-emphasize my need for a completely gluten-free meal. When the plate arrives, I once again verify the absence of gluten. While this process may seem obsessive and over-the-top, establishing these checkpoints helps to minimize risk while emphasizing the importance of your needs. Having these verbal layers of security from order to delivery allows you to relax and enjoy the food upon arrival.
Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a second-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.