Working With Wheat Allergies and Gluten Intolerance in College

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Feel like everyone you know these days has an issue with gluten or wheat? Sure, it's a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is celiac disease — an autoimmune response to gluten — currently affects 1 in 133 people. What's more, according to a study released in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there has been about an 18 percent increase in food allergies between 1997 and 2007.

College students eat a variety of foods filled with gluten — late night orders of pizza and cheesy bread, a quick run for a burrito between classes and even certain cereals in the dining hall. Knowing what to eat and how wheat and gluten affect your body can help you avoid digestive issues.

Compromising situations can be avoided by keeping safe foods on hand.

Here's the short of it: When people with celiac disease eat foods containing wheat, rye, barley and triticale, which are gluten, their immune systems create a toxic reaction that causes damage to their small intestines, making them feel downright awful. Symptoms include: cramping, depression, migraines, skin rashes, diarrhea, vomiting and more.

As for gluten sensitivity, the digestive system is again left unhappy, but without the immune response related to celiac disease. Symptoms range from mild discomfort to those that are equal to those associated with celiac disease.

Wheat Allergies vs. Celiac Disease

Wheat allergies, on the other hand, are a completely different ball game. Beckee Moreland, Director of Gluten-Free Industry Initiatives at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, explained:


"There are distinct differences between a wheat allergy, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity," said Moreland, pointing to a NFCA research paper that fully outlines the various differences. "Wheat allergy is an allergic response. According to The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network: 'Wheat-allergic people have an IgE-mediated response to wheat protein. These individuals must only avoid wheat.'"

What's more, Moreland said, "Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by the ingestion of gluten. It is marked by the presence of antibodies in the blood and damage to the villi of the small intestine. Individuals with celiac disease must follow a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet."

On the other hand, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, "exhibits many of the same symptoms as celiac disease, but does not have the same antibodies or intestinal damage seen in celiac disease," Moreland explained.

What's a Gluten-Free Diet?

"Early research indicates that this is a different type of immune response, called an innate immune response," she said. "Individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are advised to follow a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet."

The transition to a gluten-free diet can be a difficult one, let alone the process it requires for a college student who is being newly exposed to a variety of food and drink sources. The school cafeteria, friends' dorm rooms and, yes, late night parties all suddenly become a possible source of gluten contamination.

Rachel Begun, MS, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said much of the anxiety that is attached to attending school can be avoided by asking questions about gluten-free food service and dorm room accommodations when they visit schools to which they are interested in applying. Begun also encourages students and parents to visit with the admissions office, residence life, cafeteria and local grocer in order to fully assess whether or not the school is the right fit.

"When touring schools, let them know about your special dietary needs from the get go to see how they can accommodate your needs," Begun said. "College and universities are often willing to allow students with special dietary needs to participate in a partial meal plan and/or house them in a dorm room with a kitchenette or bigger space to accommodate basic cooking equipment. It's also a good idea to ask if they will give you the names of other students on campus who have to eat gluten-free."

Juli La Porte, President of CanIEatHere.com, a national online guide that connects people with food allergies and special dietary needs to restaurants in their area, said, like Begun, she too is in favor of students asking as many questions as necessary in order for them to feel comfortable about their dining situations. She also offers the following tips:

Ask More Questions

La Porte offers this example: "Many times chefs or cooks don't realize that most soy sauce contains wheat. Many times soy sauces are used as marinades and those type of dish preparations can be often overlooked or ingredients not completely listed. It's all in the details."

Keep a List Handy

"Get to know the management at area restaurants that provide allergy- and intolerance-friendly dining options. Asking for a manager can make the biggest difference in the world when protecting yourself from food allergy poisoning. For example, the Red Robin food chain policy requires the manager to be informed when a patron discloses a food allergy and that manager then oversees the order from start to finish."

Arrive Early

"Take extra care to get to the place ahead of your dining companions, it can eliminate any embarrassing situations or extended discussions about your food intolerances and sensitivities. While it is becoming more mainstream, there is a large amount of the population that still thinks that these symptoms and reactions are not real. Young people don't always like to be the spotlight, they would rather fly under the radar."

Prepare Ahead of Time

"Make sure that you have a backup food item with you in your purse or backpack. I recommend and carry my favorite protein bars, fruit or even gluten-free crackers with me everywhere. That way if I am somewhere that I am not comfortable in eating, my party doesn't have to leave because there is nothing for me to eat. Having a snack on hand makes it easy for me and the people I am with."

Don't Ignore Hunger Pangs

"College students are notorious for pulling all nighters and not eating regularly. For a student with food allergies or gluten intolerance this can be dangerous and lead to desperation. Many restaurants and dining options aren't open late at night and choices become limited. Letting yourself get too hungry can lead to bad choices and with students who have food allergies these choices could be dangerous. College is stressful enough so be kind to yourself and don't let your food allergies stress you out further."

Moreland said compromising situations can also be avoided by keeping safe foods on hand in a dorm room refrigerator or cabinet for items that do not require refrigeration.

"For your dorm room, purchase self-stable gluten-free foods as a backup," she said. "Sometimes risks are taken when you’re hungry but afraid to ask for help or can’t seem to find anything safe to eat in the dining hall. Packets of hummus and gluten-free or wheat-free crackers, soups, salad dressing packets, gluten- and wheat-free soy sauce packets, instant gluten-free macaroni and cheese, energy bars, cereal, canned tuna and individual frozen meals are great to keep on hand."

Begun said it is also important for students to remember that gluten and wheat can hide not only in food, but in and on shared preparation equipment, leading to contamination or an allergic response. Toasters, panini presses, pots and pans, salad and ice cream bars, toaster ovens, and cutting boards can all be spots where gluten and wheat might lurk.

Ultimately, Moreland said, she encourages students to not become discouraged by a schools' lack of understanding for food allergies or intolerances, but to use it as an opportunity to educate college staff to help other students, too.

In other words, don't make a decision on the college you are going to attend based on food allergies. Awareness is the beginning of change and most universities and colleges are open to having the best resources to attract the top students."

Quick Tips

  • Learn more about the differences between celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity by referring to the NFCA's introductory guide.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions about food preparation, resources and treatment available for possible reactions to food contamination or anaphylaxis.
  • Keep safe items, like fruit, hummus, pre-cut vegetables, raw nuts, gluten- and wheat-free soy sauce and food bars on hand for emergency situations.
  • Consider becoming an advocate for more food allergy and intolerance education at the university or college of your choice.

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