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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Merrimack chapter.

Let’s Talk About Celiac Disease in College

Adjusting to college life for the first time (or readjusting) can be challenging for anyone. Adding a dietary restriction into the mix can make it much more difficult. Going from complete control over meals to relying on a dining hall can be challenging. Checking menus, talking to dining staff, and planning meals multiple days in advance is draining. This is how college life can be with Celiac Disease.

You may be asking, what is Celiac Disease? Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body produces an immune response to gluten. Consuming gluten causes damage to the villi of the small intestine. Celiac can present differently for each individual who has it, as there are many symptoms of the disease. However, Celiac Disease is the only autoimmune disease with a cure: a strict gluten-free diet. 

While this may seem simple, it’s much more than avoiding wheat. With Celiac Disease, cross-contamination must be avoided as well. This means that even the slightest contact with a gluten-containing food item can cause someone with Celiac to get sick. 

Diagnosed at 18 in the middle of my senior year of high school, Celiac is relatively new to me, and starting college with a fairly new diagnosis was intimidating. It definitely took me a long time to adjust and find what works for me—this intimidation, whether you were diagnosed at a young age or recently, is completely normal.

Let’s talk about conquering Celiac Disease in college! Here are some ways that have worked for me:

Advocate For Yourself

One of the hardest skills I’ve had to learn since my diagnosis was to advocate for myself. With a dietary restriction like Celiac, it is crucial that you make your voice heard, and speak up for your needs! While this can be challenging, it will definitely help improve your experience on campus overall. Some ways to do this include: reaching out to dining staff, asking for accommodations through accessibility services, and making suggestions. 

Ask Questions!

If you’re unsure if something is safe or not, ASK! Make it clear that you have Celiac, and if necessary, explain to staff what Celiac means. An example of this would be, “I have Celiac, so I can’t have any gluten and cross-contamination is not okay. Is (food item) safe for me to eat?” Also, ask follow-up questions about how the staff handles cross-contamination. For example, “What precautions do you take to prevent cross-contamination?” Finally, make sure the staff follow the protocol, and don’t be afraid to respectfully speak up if they don’t. For example, “Is it possible that you could change your gloves? I can’t have any gluten contamination.”

Reach Out To Peers

If you see someone eating gluten-free, or hear someone ordering a gluten-free meal, connect with them! This is a great way to let others know that they aren’t alone, and potentially make a new friend in the process. It’s up to you (and the situation of course) to decide how you want to engage. Just a simple comment like, “Are those gluten-free pretzels? I have Celiac and I love that brand!” can help start a conversation, or even just make someone feel understood. We’re all in this together, and while you may feel as though you are in the minority, more people are going through this than you may expect.

Keep Safe Food On Hand 

Whether you have a meal plan or not, keeping a few safe food options on hand is super important. There are times when there may not be a gluten-free option available, especially in social situations. Always having a snack or small meal prep on hand may end up saving the day. 

Find a “Go-To” Meal

As college students, our schedules can be overwhelming, and sometimes we forget to check the menu ahead of time. Having a “go-to” option at every dining location on campus can alleviate the panic of not knowing what to eat. For example, my “go-to” at Sparky’s is the gluten-free pasta at simple servings. It’s always there, so if all else fails, I can always have pasta.

Emma Leute

Merrimack '26

My name is Emma and I am a sophomore at Merrimack College! I am majoring in computer science with minors in math and biology. In my free time, I am most likely at the gym. I also play club ice hockey and am a part of the honors program at MC!