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Living Gluten-Free in College


By Kelly Clayton, NFCA Volunteer

It was my 13th birthday. Mom decorated a cake saying “Happy 13th Birthday Kelly” with a peace sign on the right side and a flower on the left. I received the coolest pair of Mary-Kate & Ashley capri pants, embellished with oversized red rose petals donned with a matching red tank top. I was finally a teenager. The world of J-14 magazine and PG-13 movies was all my mind could think about. That was until I got a phone call that changed my life.

I came home from school and my mom was in tears. She got a call from my doctor saying that my endoscopy results came in and I had been diagnosed with a disease. After two years the doctors had a reason why I was only 68 pounds soaking wet, 4 feet 8 inches tall and hadn’t gained weight since I was 11 years old.

They said I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I didn’t cry (right away). Instead, my first question to my mom was, “What is celiac disease?” When she told me that celiac disease meant that I had to live the rest of my life on a gluten-free diet, that’s when the waterworks turned on. In my mind at 13, this meant no pizza, no PB&J sandwiches, no Oreo cookies, no ice-cream cones, no brownies, no pasta and especially no soft pretzels (which had been my before-bed snack since 2001). I thought my life was over.

I had to visit nutritionists and gastroenterologists, and they explained just what was happening in my body. I learned that celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages my small intestine, making it impossible for my body to absorb the nutrients of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, oats, barley, malt and yeast. In layman’s terms, I wasn’t allowed to eat anything with gluten and had to change my entire life.

I got over it. I tackled being gluten-free with a vengeance and told all my family and friends about my new diet. I started to gain weight, look healthy and feel better. I went through high school and had to explain to all my new friends about celiac, and everyone understood. One of my best friends and field-hockey teammates in high school even nicknamed herself “The Wheat Fairy” because she would always make sure that wherever I went I had something gluten-free to eat! Finally, I was comfortable with celiac. I had the explanation down pat after going through my story dozens of times to new faces, and I was ready to embrace a college 2 hours away from home without the security of mom’s gluten-free meals.

While applying to schools, I met with dining services directors and told them about celiac and how I followed a special diet. Some schools were really receptive to my disease and others were not. This factor was taken into consideration when deciding where to study for the next four years of my life. A great tip for people with food allergies is to eat a meal in the cafeteria at the school you are looking at, and also to have a place where you can easily access any special foods. I chose to attend Elizabethtown College, where the dining service program is divine. I coordinated with the director and have my own food bin of gluten-free goodies, which the school provides.

Now for the social aspect. Going to college means meeting lots of new faces. I quickly realized that I was going to have to explain my celiac story to everyone because I was eating three meals a day in the cafeteria with a new crowd of friends. In the mix of meeting new friends and explaining to them why I am eating just a plain hamburger without the bun, I met a girl with a severe peanut allergy. We naturally bonded over our food allergies and realized that we went through the same process in picking a school that fit our dietary needs. It made me feel welcomed to see that someone, who later came to be a great friend of mine, had struggled with her body and food in a similar way as me.

Aside from eating in the cafeteria at school, which takes much creativity to do while eating gluten-free (tip: Invest in corn tortilla wraps, as they allow for more creativity and options) I had to figure out how to socialize with my celiac. Now, people in college party. People in college also drink beer. I was up for the party, however the beer was off limits. Yes, beer contains gluten, so no beer for me. It didn’t bother me that I couldn’t indulge in the cheap Miller Lite that too many college students drank, but it was as conversation starter when someone offered me a beer and I had to say, “No, thanks. I’m allergic.” It was difficult to put myself out there and say no thanks because it made me somewhat of an outcast, but the people at school understood and some even complimented me on my persistence to follow such a rigorous diet.

What I never expected in college was how many events and functions you attend that involve food. Banquets, meetings, luncheons, presentations, dinners and even academic shin-digs include food, which is almost always catered and therefore limited in gluten-free options. What I learned to do after suffering through a luncheon with just eating salad and orange juice was to ask one of the servers if they have any grilled veggies or chicken in the back that can be cooked up for me. I did feel like a burden and annoyance in the beginning, but I realized that celiac is a burden for me that I have no control over. You shouldn’t feel scared to ask a worker if there are more gluten-free options. You have every right to eat what your body needs, and doing that may take some asking around.

People understand and feel compassion for you once they hear you are on a gluten-free diet and want to help. Nearly all of my friends now look for things that are gluten-free that I can eat and are always coming up with creative meals for me — they even found me gluten-free beer! Having a support system behind you that understands your needs is the most important thing about getting through college with celiac. Yes, every day is a struggle and, yes, going through college with celiac is tough. But college is supposed to be hard, you are suppose to be learning and, while only one out of every 133 people has celiac disease, living in college with any food intolerance is going to challenge you for the better!

A few tips for surviving college with a food allergy or intolerance:

  • Eat in the cafeteria while touring the school.
  • Carry a card explaining your dietary needs with you to give to waitresses at restaurants.
  • Be up front with your friends, coaches, professors, everyone. (Your allergy or intolerance makes you different from other college students — embrace it!)
  • Pack snacks, just in case you go to a function and they don’t have food you can eat — no one wants to starve.
  • Keep a creative mind, try new fruits and vegetables and try to capitalize on all the foods you can have.
  • Have the story of your condition simplified. Since you are going to be telling it hundreds of times, best to keep it short and sweet.
  • Don’t let your dietary restrictions scare you! You can study abroad, you can travel, you can play sports — you can do anything and everything you want in college.

This article originally appeared in USA Today College. It has been republished with permission from the author.

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