Gluten-free guide to college: How celiac disease patients can prepare for a gluten-free lifestyle on campus

Students in college

Many high school graduates are about to transition from living at home with their parents to going away and being on their own for the first time.

This is a perfect time for young people to start taking on some of the responsibilities of maintaining a gluten-free diet, whether they are moving out or staying home.

For those leaving for college, celiac disease is likely to present certain obstacles associated with the demands of living gluten-free. College students with celiac disease are exposed to cross-contamination on campus, in dining centers, and off-campus housing.

How to be gluten-free in college

Will being gluten-free affect my college experience?

Adherence to a strict gluten-free diet can be mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing. And the symptoms caused by accidental gluten ingestion, like gastrointestinal discomfort, fatigue, and changes in cognition, can affect a student’s ability to attend class and academic performance. The earlier you become familiar with the health services your university provides, the easier it will be for you to adjust to a gluten-free lifestyle on campus.

College accommodations for celiac disease

Not all colleges are equal when it comes to meeting the needs of students with celiac disease. Some have gluten-free dining halls or cafeteria sections; at others, students struggle to find gluten-free meals. It is important to reach out to supportive services office to see what options may be available.

Support services for students with celiac disease

When you enroll at a college, register with the disability services office to ensure that your medically required dining accommodations are recognized, as celiac disease is acknowledged under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Often, if institutions cannot ensure a safe dining environment for students with celiac disease or food allergies, they will make accommodations to provide access to kitchens, pre-ordered meals, or off-campus living arrangements. Registering is also important in case you experience cross-contamination that impacts your academic performance and you need accommodations, like time to recover.

University mental health services

The precautions necessary to ensure a gluten-free diet can be socially isolating and promote feelings of anxiety and depression, which can greatly influence a student’s social and academic life. Research what mental health services your university provides for students. Many universities also have support services in campus housing like peer advisors and RAs. Don’t be afraid to share your concerns with them early so they can help you throughout the year.

Gluten-free dining options for celiac patients

When visiting college campuses, request a walk-through of the dining hall with a dining manager. Identify the appropriate personnel at each campus dining location so you have a contact for any future questions. If you have concerns, speak up.

Some schools provide access to a school dietitian. If so, set up a consultation. Additionally, look for opportunities to advocate for yourself and students with similar challenges. Find out what practices other colleges are implementing, and recommend them to your school.

Eating out at restaurants

Sometimes social events involve dining out at restaurants. Try suggesting restaurants that you know have gluten-free options available. Use apps like Find Me Gluten Free to look up local restaurants, and read reviews about the gluten-free offerings from other individuals following a gluten-free diet.

Consider looking up menus ahead of time to determine potential gluten-free options. Many restaurants have their menus online, some of which may have dedicated gluten-free menus. You can call restaurants ahead of time to ask if they have gluten-free options and to evaluate their handling practices at the restaurant regarding cross contamination. Ask about shared fryers and shared preparation areas to reduce risk of inadvertent gluten exposure.

Social events without gluten-free options

Be prepared for social events where you may not have gluten-free options. Carry snacks in your backpack or bring your own lunch. Avoid going to social events hungry. Rather than skipping an event, eat ahead of time so you can spend your time socializing instead of worrying about your dietary needs.

Gluten-free grocery shopping and meal preparation on campus

For many of you, most of the grocery shopping and meal preparation has been done by your parents. This can be a time of increasing independence, even for those continuing to live at home this fall. Now you can step forward to participate in meal planning and preparation.

What if I am learning from home?

Consider taking on some of the responsibility in the kitchen. Prepare your own breakfast and lunch daily. Offer to prepare dinner for your family or friends once a week, or take on an active role helping prepare meals with your parents. This can help you become more comfortable with cooking and help educate others about new ways to prepare healthy gluten-free meals.

Create a separate, gluten-free area of the kitchen

If you live in a dorm or household where others consume gluten, dedicate a separate section of the kitchen for your gluten-free kitchen utensils, equipment and food.

Develop a shopping list each week

Determine what gluten-free meals and snacks you intend to eat for the week, and develop a shopping list. You can find gluten-free snacks and easy meal plan ideas for college students online or from a reliable source such as the Celiac Disease Foundation and the National Celiac Association.

Social media platforms can also be a great place to find inspiration for meal and recipe ideas. Make sure to follow credible sources like @uchicagoceliaccenter on Instagram for recipe and meal ideas as well as evidence-based insight on the gluten-free diet and celiac disease.

Learn how to read labels carefully

Read food labels carefully at the grocery store. Don’t limit yourself to only items labeled “gluten-free.” You may miss a variety of great options. However, you do have to make sure they are safe. See if the packaging states, “contains wheat.” If not, check the ingredient list for any potential gluten-containing ingredients such as malt, rye, or barley. If you need help understanding labels, reach out to a registered dietitian. There are also some apps that allow you to scan foods to determine if they potentially contain gluten. However, these apps can have glitches that make using them as time consuming as reading a food label.

Whether you are attending college in person or remotely, the focus of your experience should not be on your food restrictions, but on learning and growing. Use the resources available to you, speak up to promote change when needed, and enjoy your time as a college student.

Celiac Disease Treatment

The mission of The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center is to cure celiac disease. Through our groundbreaking research, we’re striving to identify new treatments for celiac disease and find a cure. We also strive to raise awareness and diagnosis rates through education and advocacy.

Learn more about celiac disease