THE BLOG
05/29/2013 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013

Gluten-Free Challenges in Schools and on College Campuses

Pizza. Pancakes. Sandwiches. Beer. These are all staples of the average college student diet and are as much a part of the college experience as frat parties and final exams. And they all contain gluten.

For most students, the biggest downside to eating these foods is unwanted weight gain. But for students with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten can cause a host of health problems like painful stomachaches, joint pain and fatigue. And nearly half of the students with these conditions are getting diagnosed while at college.

By the time I discovered I have celiac disease, I had suffered debilitating physical symptoms and almost unbearable mental and emotional strain. I had consulted 22 different physicians who told me I "looked fine" -- with some actually suggesting that I consult a psychiatrist. My life changed when a helpful friend suggested that I might have a food allergy.

Influenced by my friend's suggestion, I consulted my 23rd physician, who finally diagnosed me as having an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease. Upon further research, I learned that undiagnosed and untreated celiac disease can lead to a host of other disorders and can even cause problems with fertility. With no known cure for celiac disease, the only way for me to manage my condition was to adhere to a strict and rather complicated gluten-free diet.

I know from first-hand experience that a gluten-free diet can be challenging to maintain in any setting, but when you're living on a college campus, it can become a near impossibility. Until recently, gluten-free options were few and far between in dining halls. Now, colleges and universities are beginning to recognize this growing dietary need -- but they don't always have the right customers in mind.

There are two important distinctions between those who are gluten-free for a medical reason, like celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, and those who are trying the diet because it's "healthier." First, individuals with gluten-related disorders don't choose to eat gluten-free; they need to -- that's every meal, every day. Second, even a tiny amount of gluten -- like what's left behind when you remove a crouton from a salad -- is enough to cause symptoms and inflammation.

In a recent survey of nearly 1,000 gluten-free college students we conducted at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, 60 percent of respondents reported that they had been "glutened" from eating at a dining hall or foodservice establishment on campus. That means somewhere from farm to plate, their gluten-free food came in contact with gluten, causing them to get sick upon eating it.

There are many factors that can render a "gluten-free" meal unsafe for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. For example, if the same colander is used for gluten-free pasta and wheat-based pasta, it can contaminate the gluten-free pasta. If gluten-free bread is sliced on the same cutting board as wheat-based bread, it is no longer safe to eat. Even using the same gloves to serve gluten-free and wheat bread sandwiches could make a student with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity very sick.

The problem is, many college and university dining services staff are unaware of these risks. The assumption is that gluten-free ingredients make a gluten-free meal, without taking into consideration how that meal is prepared. According to the students we surveyed, 61 percent said their Dining Services Director was unaware or only somewhat aware of the nutritional requirements of a gluten-free diet. It's not enough to buy a few loaves of gluten-free bread and call it a day. A comprehensive approach with gluten-free training, communication and commitment from health services, residence life and dining services can help these students not only find gluten-free options to sustain their health, but also get the information and tools they need to thrive.

Celiac disease is something I deal with every day, but as an adult, I have learned how to maneuver social situations, navigate dining options and know how to pick the right foods that will give my body proper nutrition. Right now, an estimated 1 percent of the population is living with celiac disease, and another 6 percent of the population is living with gluten sensitivity. That means about one in 15 people in the United States are living with a gluten-related disorder. That's one child in every class room, on every soccer team and on every school bus who will require a strict gluten-free diet for their entire lives.

Of those living with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, many aren't diagnosed until young adulthood or later in life. Among the students NFCA surveyed, nearly one in two was diagnosed while in college, emphasizing the need for support on campus as these individuals make the transition to a safe, gluten-free lifestyle. As we grow the dialogue surrounding gluten-free needs, it's critically important for families and schools across the country to rally behind their students and ensure our institutions receive the proper service training needed to meet all students' nutritional needs.

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