Surviving college with celiac disease: Tackling school gluten free takes prep

While typical college dining halls are often difficult to navigate safely for students with celiac, less obvious but equally important issues exist beneath the surface. Research indicates that students with celiac face greater struggles in academic and social settings. The condition’s far-reaching impact on the lives of college students creates unique academic and mental health challenges for the affected students, but recognizing these risks can help them prepare for when they strike.

The hidden challenges of going gluten free at college 

Brain fog

Following gluten exposure, students with celiac often experience “brain fog,” a state of cognitive impairment that hampers both the ability to perform everyday tasks as well as academic work. Because the reaction lasts for weeks, this symptom may interfere with students’ ability to produce high-quality work by the required deadline.

Lower GPAs

A study found that independent of gluten-free compliance, female college students with celiac had an average GPA of 3.30 while female students without celiac had an average of 3.45. So while gluten exposure may worsen the academic difficulties experienced by students with celiac, it appears that something about the nature of the disease itself could cause this significant difference between the GPAs.

Anxiety and depression

Students with celiac exhibit greater susceptibility to anxiety and depression compared to their peers without the condition, independent of dietary adherence. However, researchers did find a direct correlation between performance anxiety and the duration of a gluten-free diet— patients who had followed the gluten-free diet for a longer period of time exhibited greater levels of performance anxiety. College students already have to deal with the rigorous academic demands of their coursework, and performance anxiety only adds to the difficulty.

A step in the right direction

While colleges can easily address dining-related issues through tweaking their protocols, solutions for the academic and mental health difficulties are much less straightforward. However, acknowledging the existence of these challenges prepares both students and universities to take action when these issues present themselves. For example, the campus accessibility office should clearly articulate academic accommodations to account for cognitive difficulties following gluten exposure. Also, universities and students can identify problematic behaviors and direct students to the appropriate mental-health and academic resources in the case of anxiety, depression or unusual academic struggle.

Handling the dining hall as a gluten-free student

My first semester, I used the food lines as a typical student, and I picked up a few best practices along the way. Here are some of my best tips and strategies on how to effectively tackle the college dining hall with celiac disease.

The salad bar is your friend

The fresh vegetables and hearty add-ons on the salad bar foster the ideal environment to dodge both gluten exposure and the “freshman 15.” The salad bar served as a dependable option that always promised variety. Broccoli, beans, grilled chicken, baby carrots and hummus became staples in my diet. Also, the salad bar lies far away from the hot food line, which hosts the majority of cross-contamination culprits. While the salad bar served as a safe haven for me, this tip only holds true if the gluten-containing croutons are isolated from the rest of the ingredients (which was the case at my school).

We love fruit!

Most dining halls serve plenty of desserts, including cakes, cookies and soft-serve ice cream. Though the baked goods are not gluten free, the soft-serve ice cream machine might not be the best option, either. I have witnessed far too many students obliviously brushing their cones against the spout of the machine, ruining the possibility of soft serve for celiac students.

Luckily, whole fruit serves as an excellent option for those who are looking for dessert substitutes or something sweet to add to their meal. My favorite dining hall fruits are pears, plums and grapefruits, but most schools also offer timeless favorites such as apples, oranges and bananas. I make it a habit to grab one or two pieces of fruit as a snack for later on in the day. If I have to pay for a meal plan, I might as well maximize its utility.

Keep it simple and accessorize with condiments

My dining hall always has a station with plain brown rice, which proved an excellent filler food for days that lacked other gluten-free options (make sure the rice does not have spices or sauce that contain gluten). Brown rice, grilled chicken and the aforementioned salad bar staples form a balanced, satisfying meal. However, this can begin to taste bland after a while.

While it may be tempting to try some of the more exciting entrees and sides, the over-processed nature of dining hall foods means that there’s likely plenty of gluten hiding in the prepared dishes. I found that it was safest for me to load up on simpler foods and then turn to the spice rack to experiment with different seasonings and sauces. I really love spicy food, so hot sauce became my best friend last semester. I learned that if you add enough hot sauce to subpar food, you can only taste hot sauce.  

Inspect your plates & silverware

My school’s notoriously subpar dishwashing system often leaves remnants of food from the previous meal on silverware and dishes. I quickly developed the habit of checking my plates and forks to ensure the absence of food residue, and I encourage you to do the same. Everybody could benefit from this habit, gluten free or not.

college student on the quad

Talking to peers about the gluten-free diet

I don’t want to make celiac disease the first characteristic people know 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 “gluten-free girl.” I never allowed celiac disease to become central to my identity, and I never intend for that to happen.

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 you should be ashamed of. Until we have a cure, celiac disease is something 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 judgments. 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.

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