Living Gluten-Free in the College World

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Guest blogger, Zara Young, used her first hand experience to respond to the points I made in my earlier post, Dorms, Tailgating & Cafeterias: Gluten-Free College Advice. Zara continues to make the most of her college experience, and does not let celiac get in the way of enjoying University of Vermont.  I am amazed by her positive attitude and the proactive way she embraces her gluten-free life.  From leading the UVM celiac group to running marathons, Zara doesn’t let anything stop her.

ZaraBe Prepared: I always keep a simple and easy snack like rice cakes and peanut butter in my room.  They are easy and tasty!  I bring rice cakes with peanut butter to class with me when I do not have time to sit down for lunch on campus.  I also like to mix it up and top this snack with raisins, chocolate chips, banana slices, etc.  Cereal is also a necessity to have on hand in the dorm room.  My favorite cereal combination is Nature’s Path Whole O’s mixed with Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise.  I also enjoy the GF Cinnamon Chex when I have a sweet tooth. I keep milk in my mini-fridge for when I want a full bowl of cereal, but also take dry cereal with me sometimes as a snack.  My roommate and I also have two “food baskets” in our room- one gluten free and one for her gluten-filled snacks.

Late Night Snacks: This is one of the harder parts of being gluten free at college.  Watching friends devour late night snacks like pizza definitely requires self-control!  My all time favorite “late night snack” to have on hand in my dorm room, is the Thai Kitchen instant soup.  It is essentially the gluten free version of Ramen.  There is a microwave in the common room on my hall that I use to make the Thai Kitchen easily in just minutes.  There is also a pizza place in downtown Burlington called Mr. Harley’s that is open late night.  Mr. Harley’s serves all sorts of sports-pub food and appetizers along with their pizza, including the tastiest sweet potato french fries.  I have been there during slower hours to discover that they fry their potatoes and their battered foods in separate oils at a decent distance from each other in order to keep the french fries gluten free!

Make Friends With The People Who Make Your Food: This is one part of having Celiac that I am good at doing!  It may be hard at first, but being confident about what you want to (and, more importantly, what you can) eat is very important.  The good news is most people now know a good bit about Celiac Disease or have at least heard of it.  Whenever I come across someone who doesn’t know too much about it, I take the opportunity to teach him or her about celiac in a way that makes them eager to help me out. I briefly describe gluten intolerances, explain in detail what exactly gluten is, and I add a couple examples of foods that unexpectedly contain gluten, such as soy sauce.  When I was a freshman at boarding school, I even printed out some info about Celiac for the cooks in the dining hall to post.  After establishing a good friendship with the people who cooked my food, they wanted to feed me exactly what I was comfortable eating.

The University of Vermont does an amazing job supporting a gluten-free diet.  Each dining hall has a gluten free section.  There is gluten free cereal, bread, frozen waffles, bagels, and cookies.  There are also separate jelly bins and a separate toaster reserved to be 100% gluten free.  The other dining services at UVM serve special gluten-free foods like falafels, soup, sandwiches, and corn tortilla quesadillas and tacos.  The people in the deli line are required to change their gloves and have a clean surface to prepare the gluten-free meals.  I also made friends with the man who makes sautéed vegetable wraps at one of my favorite places to eat.  He knows me now, and understands the importance of replacing the wrap with rice or quinoa then serve it all piled together on a plate.

If dining services at other colleges or boarding schools do not have these options, I suggest speaking directly to the chefs during slow hours, not at mealtime.  In high school, the chefs let me keep my own gluten-free bread and cereal in the dining hall.  The most important part to me about making friends with the people who cook your food is to get them excited about making gluten-free options available.  After exploring different places to eat on campus, you will find steady gluten-free options that you trust.  You should have the same opportunities to eat on campuses that other students do!

Tailgating:  To be honest, UVM does not have tailgating.  (In fact, it is the only Division I state university without a football team.)  However, I do like tailgating when visiting friends at other schools.  My mom also knows I enjoy events like this.  For example, at the Apple Blossom Festival parades in my hometown of Winchester, VA, all of the parade route yard parties have all sorts of delicious, open container snacks and hors d’oeuvres.  At Apple Blossom in 2004 (just one month after being diagnosed), my mom brought a bag of Lundberg gluten free rice chips with an attractive serving dish to some of the places we were invited.  The bowl of chips was set aside where no one else would contaminate them.  At first I was embarrassed to have a bowl set aside for my “special” snacks.  I quickly got over that, though, and was thankful not to have to carry my own snack or just not eat anything at all.   Keeping snacks off to the side or in my own bag is a discrete way of going about having gluten free treats at an event with lots of grab-and-go foods without having to ask or worry about cross contamination from foods I assumed would be gluten free.

Weekend Activities:  Whenever my friends and I take weekend trips to go skiing, hiking, etc., I always get a little apprehensive about meal times.  It is definitely necessary to bring my own breakfast.  It is easy to pack a box of cereal, and usually fruit and milk during a grocery store trip can be communal and remain uncontaminated during the weekend.  If we will not be cooking or if the group is too big to cook an entirely gluten free meal, I bring my own instant gluten free dinners.  Although they are not the tastiest, frozen Amy’s entrees and instant Thai Kitchen soups do the trick.  Of course for outdoor activities, fruit and nut bars are the perfect travel size snack packed with lots of energy.

I came along another bump in the road regarding easy, gluten free energy bars when I ran my first marathon in October 2009.  I definitely needed a little something to raise my blood sugar level during the race.  I do not prefer the small packs of energy “goo,” and of course could not have someone handing me bite size pieces of a peanut butter sandwich that would not crumble in a quick hand off.  The best option I came up with was having my sister pass me bite-size pieces of the gluten free bar made by Clif Bar called Clif Nectar. (I prefer the Lemon Vanilla Cashew flavor.)  It is much easier to chew (less crunchy) than the normal gluten free fruit and nut bars, but is still packed with lots of nutrients and energy!

Adjusting to the gluten free college life definitely takes time, and doesn’t happen instantly.  Initially, I was very anxious and hesitant about eating food that I did not prepare or that was not clearly labeled “gluten free.”  I started off just eating simple, low ingredient foods like salad until I fell into the groove of my schedule to figure out when and where I needed to eat.  As increasingly more people discover gluten intolerances, more and more gluten free options become available.  Living gluten-free only gets easier each day, even for college students!

Even Super Bowl Stars Go Gluten-Free

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With yesterday’s NFL division championship games, I couldn’t resist giving a shout out to New Orleans Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, a fellow gluten-free eater.  While Brees does not have celiac, he has an allergy to gluten and eats a diet free from wheat and gluten.  (Brees discovered this allergy in 2004 as well as allergies to dairy and nuts.)  Check out this 2007 Sports Illustrated article that discusses Brees’ workout regime as well as a typical day of gluten-free meals for the quarterback.  In a Wall Street Journal interview last fall, Brees claims that he has much more energy due to his new diet and these changes allow him to sleep better and perform better on the athletic field.  Clearly this professional athlete values making his body feel as good as possible because he relies on his energy and health in order to be successful at his job.  (Lots of people rely on Drew Brees feeling good and throwing well!)  While we may not all be NFL stars, each of us needs to feel our best in order to engage in our own daily tasks.  Hopefully Drew Brees will continue to feel energized and healthy as he continues to train for the Super Bowl in two weeks.  Go Saints!

Dorms, Tailgating, & Cafeterias: Gluten-Free College Advice

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In the last couple of weeks, two of my former students have been diagnosed with celiac or gluten intolerances.  As the number of celiac diagnoses continues to increase in the United States, more and more teenagers and adults in their early 20s will be turning to a gluten-free diet.  Going gluten-free creates many challenges for people of all ages, but young adults have their own set of hurdles they must face as they adjust to their new dietary guidelines.

In emailing recently with a student who was just diagnosed with celiac, it reminded me just how difficult it is for teenagers and college-aged people with celiac to cope with their gluten-free diet.  When you’re living on a dorm or in an apartment with others, you have less control over the food that surrounds you and even what goes in your mouth.  You’re more likely to go out or be eating in a cafeteria, which means you’re not the one preparing your food.  I get a little anxious anytime I eat out or even go to a friend’s house for a meal, but for those at boarding school, in college, or even recently out of college, eating outside of your home is a constant reality.

Even though I wasn’t diagnosed with celiac until post-college, I can understand some of the issues young celiacs face in their daily lives, after living at a boarding school for the last three years and still being a “20-something” myself. I’ve provided some tips to help alleviate the stress that can come with celiac and putting your dietary needs in the hands of others.  Even if you’re not a teenager or in your early 20s, you might still find these tips helpful for you.

–       “Be prepared.” Yes, I know this is the Boy Scout’s motto, but it is key to living the gluten-free life.  I never travel anywhere without a small stash of food in my bag.  A Lara Bar, a bag of peanuts, and M&Ms are always on hand for me, no matter where I’m going or how certain I am that I’ll be able to consume a gluten-free meal.  You never want to be caught hungry and empty handed.  Believe me, it’s not a good feeling (and it becomes more tempting to eat gluten when you’re hungry).

–       Create your own late night snacks.  In college, there’s a lot of late night eating, for a variety of reasons.  People are up later studying or hanging out on dorm so there’s a need for more sustenance at unusual hours.  Also, alcohol consumption translates into thinking late night pizza is a good idea.  Well, it’s really not a good idea for you now that you’re gluten-free.  Make sure that you stock up on things that you can eat late night, if you enjoy this aspect of college life.  I met a girl with celiac who loves late-night pasta, so she always makes sure that she has some gluten-free pasta in her apartment to whip up when she feels the need.  Frozen GF pizzas might do the job as well.  I know it’s not the same as greasy, freshly delivered pizza, but we all have to make life adjustments.  (Good news!  5 Guys burgers are GF without the bun and their fries are gluten-free as well so this could be a good late night food stop for you if you’re feeling the post-bars food craving.)

–       Ask Questions.  It can feel awkward and even obnoxious to constantly ask questions about the food you’re eating, but it’s a must.  Especially since you can’t control how things are being prepared and what ingredients are going into them, you must be informed.

–       Make friends with the people who make your food.  If you are on a meal plan at college, introduce yourself to the managerial staff and the people who make and serve your food.  If they know you and understand your needs, they’ll be more able to accommodate your needs.  If you go to a certain restaurant a lot, ask to meet the owner or the manager.  I’ve found that people in the food service industry want to get it right and are well intentioned.  Don’t hesitate to try to connect with those people.  When they can connect a face to the ‘disease’ they’re more likely to want to help you out and go the extra mile.

–       Find gluten-free places you trust: When friends ask where a good place is for you to eat, have answers.  Your whole outlook on your city or college town will change once you’ve been diagnosed with celiac.  It’s worth investigating your options so that you can go to restaurants with friends and feel confident in your meal.  I attended UVA and now when I go back to Charlottesville, my entire trip is different because I’ve discovered places that make great gluten-free accommodations for me.  Charlottesville is a town that’s known for its sandwiches and great bagel places, but I’ve found delicious food for me too.

–       Go with your instinct & just say, “No.”: If it doesn’t feel right, skip it.  This piece of advice comes from someone who has not always gone with her instinct and regretted it later.  I tend to worry about hurting people’s feelings but my health is more important than feelings.  I now ask to look at jars and labels at friends’ houses, even though it can be uncomfortable.  I politely turn things down if I think it’s going to make me sick later.  In restaurants, the same principle applies.

–       Beware Tailgating: Tailgating is a favorite pastime for college students.  I, too, love a good tailgate, but sadly, I have yet to find any gluten-free friendly tailgates.  Issues of contamination are almost unavoidable when people are grabbing sandwiches and chips with one hand while holding their glutenous beer in the other.  While it might feel a bit awkward to have to say “no” to every ham biscuit or piece of Bojangle’s fried chicken that’s offered to you, it’s worth it.  Even if someone has nicely made a gluten-free artichoke dip, make sure that gluten-filled food products have not been dipped into the same dip.  If I’m going to be at a football game, I make sure to have plenty of food with me and eat a big breakfast earlier in the day.

–       Limit the variables: I often describe my body as a science experiment, so it’s only fitting that I discuss ‘controlling variables.’  When I am planning a weekend away, I make sure that at least a few of the meals will be in my control.  I like to bring my own breakfast food and snacks so that at least some meals I won’t have to worry about potential contamination or food issues.  I find that bringing some of my own food cuts down on the variables (potential for getting sick) and makes me feel more comfortable at my other meals.  The nice thing about breakfast is that you can always get coffee with your friends and still feel like you’re sharing in the meal and the social time.  Limiting the variables definitely applies for college students as well because there are so many times that your eating is left in the hands of others.  Give yourself some meals where you create what you ingest.

–       Find activities that are non-food related: It seems that most of the social events we do with others involve food in some way.  There are many fun things to do with friends that don’t revolve around a meal so think about what some of those might be in your town.  For me, I enjoy hiking, running, going to an athletic event and even wine tasting.  (Cheers to wine being gluten-free!)

Staying healthy on a gluten-free diet is about monitoring what goes into your body.  When you don’t create your meals, this becomes more difficult.  Try to stay positive, especially if you’re still adjusting to your new gluten-free life.  I promise, it’s worth it.  There will be ups and downs, but over time it will get easier.