Dealing With Food Allergies and Intolerances in College

Dealing With Food Allergies and Intolerances in College

Understand how you can maintain a healthy diet despite food allergies while in college.

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

For many college students, a night spent in front of the television with a bowl full of buttered popcorn is a typical weekday night. But for college student Madeline-Camille — also known as "Chef Froggie" — the mere smell of a snack food so many people enjoy can lead to a night in the emergency room.

At least, that was the case this past summer when Madeline-Camille was sitting in a classroom and a fellow classmate brought popcorn into the room. The airborne dairy caused a reaction that led to anaphylaxis and a trip to the emergency room.

Common Food That Cause Allergies

According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, there are eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions: milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. What's more, as many as 15 million people have food allergies.

For school school cafeterias and restaurants, "The biggest mistake is not taking allergies seriously," said Tracy Stuckrath, President and Chief Connecting Officer at Thrive! Meetings & Events, a boutique event marketing company that educates the hospitality industry on how to accommodate different dietary needs. "Food allergies are a potentially life-threatening condition."

On the other hand, an intolerance to a food ingredient, like gluten or dairy, is a reaction that occurs in the digestive tract when a person is unable to properly break down food, leading to cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, migraines, body aches and more.

Be Aware of What You Eat

Stuckrath points out that no matter if it is a food allergy or intolerance, it is important for a student to ask questions, like: "Is the equipment like fryers, tongs, bowls, cutting boards, knives, used to prepare the meal freshly cleaned? Is the meal prepared away from other menu items to avoid cross-contamination? Who is making sure that it’s prepared properly? Who is going to serve it and follow-up to make sure it is correct?"

"Know your food allergies," said Madeline-Camille, who is the author of the Gluten Free Froggie in the Kitchen, where she discusses her multiple food allergies and celiac disease. "Know how sensitive you are. But even more important learn from my mistake. Don't risk cross-contamination or even decide to not care about your food allergies and eat what you know you're allergic to."

Madeline-Camille is now in her fourth year at college and has decided to finish her degree from home at an online university in order to better manage her allergies. She does spend her summer semesters in an on-campus classroom, but is happy to return home after nine weeks spent in the campus environment.

"By the end of just nine weeks, I'm exhausted and super thankful that I'm an online student, not an on-campus student," Madeline-Camille said. "I don't know how I'd manage to be on campus for nine months of the year."

However, you can't let Madeline-Camille's experience scare you if you have food allergies and intolerances. She emphasized that her allergies are of the extreme nature, explaining that contact with a door knob that has been touched by a hand that has been in contact with peanut butter, ice cream, granola bars or any other allergen-containing food item can cause a reaction. The constant rashes and hives led her to wear gloves and consistently remind professors and friends of her food allergies.

Food Allergies Aren't the End of the World

"Some students thrive despite having food allergies," Madeline-Camille said. "Some don't. I think it depends a lot on how severe the allergy is and the personality of the student and how resilient they are."

What's her advice? Students with allergies should always carry their autoinjectors, such as an EpiPen or Twinject, and to remember that there will be bad, frustrating, exhausting and, yes, even thankful days during their college experiences.

"Yes, there are days I wish I was on-campus again," she said. "But I am very thankful I can still get a degree online in spite of many life-threatening food allergies. Is it easy? No. But is a college or university ever always easy? No! Is it worth it? Absolutely."

Quick Tips

  • Always carry autoinjectors, such as an EpiPen, with you in case of an emergency.
  • Check with school food staff to learn more about their procedures for handling food allergies and intolerances.
  • Don't get discouraged. Join a campus group or start one that is especially for students dealing with food allergies and/or intolerances.

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