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Eating Right on Campus with Celiac Disease Advice and Tips for College Students with Gluten Intolerance & Sensitivity

About 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease. The only treatment is strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. Living with celiac disease and gluten intolerance or sensitivity can be difficult – especially for college students who live on campus and rely on a dining hall for the majority of their meals. This guide was created to provide college students living with celiac disease and gluten intolerance a roadmap to successfully manage their gluten-free dining options. We’ve included resources for on-campus support, dining options, and even a few recipes for gluten-free foods students can prepare in their dorm rooms.

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What is Celiac Disease?

There’s been a great deal of fuss regarding consumption of gluten in the past few years, but in truth only 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease, reports Beyond Celiac, a non-profit advocacy and awareness group dedicated to advancing knowledge and treatment of the disease. It’s sometimes called an “invisible illness” because sufferers can have little to no external symptoms – unless they consume foods containing gluten.

Here’s the full scope of celiac disease, and related issues such as gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity:

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that’s triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and foods made from these ingredients. Wheat flour is used in countless foods, from pizza dough to hamburger buns to bagels and donuts – typical dining options for college students.

People who have diagnosed celiac disease are at risk for serious health outcomes, such as thyroid disease, anemia, osteoporosis and even cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Early diagnosis is extremely important to help people with the disease avoid future health complications.

Blood tests can screen people for the disease, but a full diagnosis can only be reached through an endoscopic biopsy, the Celiac Disease Foundation reports. A licensed gastroenterologist analyzes a piece of the small intestine for damage consistent with celiac disease – and that’s why students should never substitute the advice offered here or in other resources for a proper medical diagnosis of celiac disease. Always consult trained medical professionals for proper diagnosis of health issues.

Gluten Intolerance & Gluten Sensitivity

While diagnosis for celiac disease is clear, that’s not the case for people with non-celiac wheat sensitivity. NCWS affects roughly 18 million Americans, Beyond Celiac reports, and people with non-celiac wheat sensitivity have clear biological differences compared to people with celiac disease. Researchers are working to eliminate ambiguity between the two conditions, which share many related physical symptoms.

Some of the most common include:

  • Fatigue, depression, anxiety and irritability
  • Joint pain
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Bloating, diarrhea and constipation

Celiac disease includes more than 200 symptoms, the Celiac Disease Foundation reports. Perhaps the main difference between the two is that people with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten and it damages their small intestines – although people suffering from NCWS may have intestinal damage to a lesser degree. The two conditions share the same trigger, but NCWS is generally regarded as being less severe than celiac disease.

What is Gluten? Where is it Found?

Gluten is a type of protein that’s found in wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye. It helps foods maintain form by acting as a bonding agent. Gluten is prevalent in many of the most common foods we eat, including:

  • Baked goods and breads
  • Soups
  • Cereal
  • Sauces
  • Pasta-noodles, ravioli, ramen and egg noodles
  • Salad dressing
  • Beer

There’s also foods that aren’t made from wheat-based flour that have ingredients that contain gluten (hidden gluten). These include:

  • Soy sauce and gravies
  • Energy bars
  • Meat substitutes
  • Multi-grain tortilla chips and seasoned potato chips

There are many other hidden sources of gluten. The only way to know if foods have gluten or wheat is to read the Nutrition Facts Panel. Students who are unsure of food ingredients may accidentally ingest gluten, which will trigger some of the many symptoms associated with the disease.

How College Students Can Get Support for a Gluten-Free Diet on Campus

There’s only one way to truly beat celiac disease: avoid gluten. However, that’s easier said than done, especially for college students who live on their own and are responsible for their meal choices for the first time in their lives.

But college students aren’t on their own when it comes to defeating celiac disease. A lawsuit filed against Lesley University of Cambridge, Mass. in December 2012 resulted in a ruling by the U.S. Department of Justice that the university must make reasonable accommodations for students with celiac disease and other digestive disorders. However, the ruling is not law, and it involved a mandatory meal plan for a select group of students at one particular university.

Dining options are not “one size fits all.” Students with celiac disease must have access to gluten-free food options. Students can follow these three steps to help increase their access to gluten-free dining options.

Many colleges are address food allergies by providing comprehensive gluten-free meal options. Gluten-free foods can carry a GF or similar designation on menu boards, and a schedule of when these foods are on the menu.

What to Eat if You Have Celiac or a Gluten Sensitivity

It may seem like the deck is stacked against people with celiac disease since so many foods contain gluten and hidden sources of gluten. But many people successfully make the adjustment to a gluten-free lifestyle. Sure it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.

Here are the five main gluten-free food groups:

  • Dairy
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fish and seafood
  • Nuts, beans and legumes

There are literally hundreds of food choices and snacks to be found within those five groups, from fresh tilapia or salmon to bun-less hamburgers to bananas and apples. Students who focus their dietary intake on meats, fruits and vegetables can successfully manage living with celiac disease on campus.

Additionally, a few specific foods that are common staples and are safe to eat include:

  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Quinoa

Here’s a simple rule of thumb that’s generally true: Heavily processed packaged foods often contain gluten, while fresh, minimally processed fresh foods – an essential part of any healthy diet – often are gluten free.

There are many gluten-free substitutes and alternatives available for people with celiac disease. These include gluten-free breads and oats labeled as gluten free. The key is reading and understanding the Nutrition Facts Panel to find sources of gluten and gluten-free foods.

Student-Friendly Gluten Free Recipes and Foods

There’s certainly no shortage of books and magazine that provide insight into celiac disease and preparing gluten-free diets. Beyond Celiac has compiled a lengthy list of these publications, and the Academy of Culinary Nutrition provides recipes for 30 tasty gluten-free meals. There are hundreds of additional web sites and publications, including the Celiac Disease Foundation, that provide free gluten-free meal plans.

College students can’t survive on words alone, however. The following recipe is just a few one many meals that can easily be prepared in a dorm room:

Nacho Potato Power Bowl

Loaded with meat, cheese, salsa and sour cream, students can prepare this main dish from the website Gluten-Free Palate using nothing more than a microwave. The site also has tons of ideas for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dessert.

Gluten-free foods that are easily cooked in a dorm room microwave include:

  • Baked or scalloped potatoes
  • Bacon (and BLT’s on gluten-free bread)
  • Quesadillas with salsa
  • Eggs
  • Tuna melt on gluten-free bread
  • Canned chilis and stews (make sure to read the label for hidden gluten)
  • Steamed vegetables

It’s also sometimes extremely easy to exchange foods containing gluten for those that do not. Swapping corn tortillas for flour is a prime example. Others include:

  • Rice cakes for crackers or bagels
  • Gluten-free flax or fiber cereal for bread crumbs
  • Spaghetti squash or cauliflower for pizza crust
  • Cornmeal pancakes for regular pancakes
  • Chopped nuts for granola or croutons
  • Meringue instead of frosting
  • Almond, coconut, buckwheat, chickpea, sorghum, or rice flour instead of wheat-based flour
  • Quinoa and polenta for couscous
  • Tamari sauce instead of soy sauce

With some diligence and practice, students with celiac disease can turn themselves into dorm-room gourmets.

Expert Advice on Living Gluten Free

Dr. Elizabeth Trattner is a graduate of the Acupuncture Institute of Miami, and she also holds a chef’s certificate from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts in New York City. Both Trattner and her daughter, a college sophomore in 2017, have celiac disease.

Why could managing celiac disease and gluten intolerance be hard for college students?

Some universities do not provide good gluten-free food options or facilities to avoid cross-contamination, or dormitories where students with celiac can cook for themselves. Also, some dormitories are restrictive with what students can have in their rooms. My daughter’s choice of college was based on who could accommodate her best.

How can students live on campus and manage celiac disease?

Students should reach out to housing with a medical letter, and housing should be able to provide the best housing options with kitchens. They should also be able to make accommodations regarding a gluten-free pantry at the commissaries, and also what students can keep in their room. Amazon and Thrive also can deliver good gluten-free food to dorms, so students can have safe food with them at all times. It is imperative to talk with housing and have your physician provide documentation to receive the best accommodations possible.

Celiac & Gluten-Free Resources

College students and others with celiac disease can find a wealth of information about the disease from the following resources:

  • Celiac.com

    Provides resources and information for people with gluten-free diets.

  • Celiac Disease Center

    Located at the University of Chicago. Provides a wealth of information and resources.

  • Celiac Disease Foundation

    Drives and funds national research, education and advocacy initiatives to help bring an end to the disease.

  • DannaKorn.com

    People magazine dubbed Danna Korn the “Gluten-Free Guru.” Author of the self-help books “Living Gluten-Free for Dummies” and “Gluten-Free Cooking for Dummies.”

  • GI Kids

    Provides information and resources to promote awareness of pediatric digestive and nutritional disorders, including celiac disease.

  • Gluten Free Living

    Magazine devoted to issues surrounding celiac disease, gluten-free diets and research.