THE BLOG
12/22/2014 08:07 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Going Against the Grain: The Paradox of Living Gluten-free at a Liberal College

"Gluten-free" is a bit of an ambiguous phrase -- the reaction to uttering those words in a sentence can range from an empathetic nod to a roll of the eyes. If you're lucky, the waiter will know what you are talking about when you ask if something is gluten-free. If not, you and your friends are forced to wait in awkward silence as they go check with the chef.

On a college campus where Nutritional Sciences is one of the most popular majors, I've always been amazed at the limited understanding many people have of what it means to be "gluten-free." I couldn't count on both hands the number of times I've been asked, "So what is gluten, exactly?" (For those of you who don't know, it's a protein composite found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale products).

A few weeks ago, I made gluten-free cookies for a fundraiser on campus, and some of the remarks by students who stopped by the table were quite surprising -- everything from "gluten-free foods are disgusting!" to "oh, that's that vegan stuff." (Just as a side note, the stick of butter and two eggs that I put in the cookies is definitely not vegan).

At a college where everyone has access to cutting edge knowledge in biology and health sciences, in a town that is practically foodie heaven, I couldn't -- and still don't -- understand why "gluten-free" has such a negative implication, especially on a campus where everyone is surrounded by gluten-free products and restaurants.

Most of the negative hype surrounding gluten-free diets comes from concerns that this new "fad" is really just another eating disorder in disguise, and could be used to mask more serious concerns, like anorexia. The rest of the hype comes from the controversy around the condition of gluten intolerance. If someone is diagnosed with celiac disease, it is difficult to be skeptical. That would be like rolling your eyes at someone who's severely allergic to peanuts.

Gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, however, has a bit more of a nebulous status. Gluten intolerance is a condition almost identical to celiac -- people with this condition who ingest gluten have many of the same gastrointestinal symptoms as celiacs, but do not suffer from the same dangerous damage to their intestines. What I think makes people so nervous about gluten intolerance is the fact that it isn't tangible -- although it has be recognized by the medical community as a diagnosable condition, there is no form of medical test that can be run to actually test for it. It's diagnosed simply by process of elimination.

The problem with this is that people often "self-diagnose" gluten intolerance, and reach for gluten-free foods when they don't need to. This is a part of the "fad" that many people have accused the diet of becoming, and I can't completely argue against that point. After all, gluten-free foods tend to be more expensive than normal breads and snacks, so food companies have a stake in making it a popular diet. But for people who need to live without gluten for the sake of their health, the negative connotation can be difficult to deal with.

The paradoxical fact of this situation is that even at a liberal college, where one would expect open-mindedness towards this exact kind of issue, there is a surprising amount of skepticism surrounding not just gluten-free diets, but other alternative diets as well, including vegan and vegetarian choices. Anything "different" isn't always taken into stride. The thing is, no one should be forced to explain his or her dietary choices: whether it is for religious, moral, or health reasons, it is a personal choice. The same holds true for people who do not have dietary restrictions, and I promise I won't judge you for enjoying that piece of cake or your favorite sandwich.

Trust me, no college student would want to willingly take on a gluten-free diet. It spells an end to the late-night pizza orders, the make your own waffles at brunch, the runs to Insomnia Cookies. When I go to the popular local bagel shop with my friends, my order is automatically a dollar fifty more than those of my friends because gluten-free bagels aren't as easy to make. It's a difficult and expensive lifestyle for most people, but especially so in college.

The best way to get rid of the stigma against this diet (or any diet that deviates from the norm) is through education about the simple facts of life for people who have to live gluten-free. For a school with so many dining options for a myriad of diets, my university doesn't even have a gluten-free club or society. Once people understand that for many, this is not a choice, there may be more empathy for those who struggle with staying healthy on a campus that is full of gluten-free foods, but isn't quite yet gluten-free friendly.