Dining Hall Dilemmas: Surviving Gluten Sensitivity in College

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In part 2 of “Dining Hall Dilemmas,” Emma Krause, a former student at Emerson College, shares her story of finding gluten-free food options on campus.

It wasn’t the dining hall full of pizza, nor was it the pasta bar at the school café down the street. As a college student with a gluten sensitivity, my biggest challenge was that I was diagnosed after having lived on campus for a year, and I had already adapted to the college’s food offerings. I had my preferences, like the mozzarella panini from the school coffee shop or the pasta stir-fry from the café. This meant that after a summer at home, where I’d had much more control over my meal options, I returned to campus anxious and hesitant to eat in my school’s dining hall.

Perhaps the best piece of advice my doctor gave me was to break down my meal into different types of foods. Instead of thinking, I can’t have that meal or I can’t eat that option, she encouraged me to think about always incorporating a protein, a carbohydrate, and lots of veggies. Using this mentality, I would often pick and choose different pieces from different parts of our dining hall, asking the guys at the sandwich counter to give me slices of turkey, and then asking the server at home cooking to pass me a baked potato.  I also would occasionally bring in my own food, using my own crackers instead of bread so that I could take advantage of the sandwich counter or bringing in my own granola so that I could mix it with the yogurt and fruit offerings in the morning.

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I also began surveying all the options in the respective eating facilities before making my selection. Instead of going for what my eyes were immediately drawn too, I would walk through each serving station and mentally put together a meal. Though my rumbling stomach often protested, I found that by knowing all of my choices, I was able to better ascertain how to fill myself up while still eating in a way that would give me all the nutrients I needed despite my gluten sensitivity.

Some days, particularly weekends, were very challenging as the dining hall would often resort to pizza and pasta to make it easier for workers. On these nights, the salad and soup bars were my best friend. I ate enough chili my sophomore year that I couldn’t look at it when my father made it over winter break. Boiled eggs, legumes, and nuts were important too, as they often helped to fill the carbohydrate void if there were no potatoes or rice that night.

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Perhaps the thing I made the most of was the salad bar. I knew every kind of salad mix and vegetable available, often vying for starchier options like broccoli or cauliflower if I was particularly hungry, and always checking if they put orzo, wheat berries, or couscous in the selections. Asking questions was also key. The dining hall manager and I became good friends; I would often inquire whether the soup had pasta in it or if they were using a wheat-based soy sauce in the stir-fry.

By the third month, I had become quite adept. I knew what meals I could and could not eat, what dining facilities on campus would have the best options for me at specific times during the week, and when I would have to substitute my own foods for what they offered. I made it through sophomore year eating my school’s food and am pleased to say I remained gluten-free throughout. That mozzarella panini was certainly tempting though.

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Question and Answer

StudentAdvisor: What does it mean to have a gluten sensitivity?

Emma Krause: Having a gluten sensitivity means that you have a bodily reaction upon consuming food items that contain gluten. Gluten can be found in breads or pastas and baked goods made with white, wheat, rye, spelt, or barley flour. Reactions usually vary from mild to painful stomach cramps. In my case the cramps got to a point that I would curl up on my bed in the fetal position from the pain.

SA: Is gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease the same thing?

EK: No they are not. Though both create similar feelings within the body, Celiac disease has a different effect. With Celiac disease, the villi that line your small intestines begin to destroy themselves when they come into contact with gluten enzymes. My nutritionist told me that my gluten sensitivity stemmed from a lack of digestive enzymes in my stomach, making it difficult to digest and break down more structurally complex, dense food items—like gluten.

SA: You mentioned you were not diagnosed until college. How might other students tell if they also have a gluten sensitivity, but have not yet been diagnosed?

EK: If students are finding that they frequently get painful stomach cramps after eating gluten heavy meals like pizza, pasta, or large amounts of bread, I would recommend going to a doctor or a nutritionist.

SA: Are there gluten-free options for products, like bread, that normally contain wheat?

EK: Yes there are, though the trick is finding products that actually have food value and are nutritious. There are a ton of gluten-free bread, pasta and baked good options but I often find that they use high-fructose corn syrup, rice flour, and vegetable oil to hold the bread together and create a similar consistency to normal bread. There are other flours, such as millet, kamut, buckwheat, and quinoa that are much more nutritious and hold the bread together just as well. I also find it very difficult to find fresh baked bread or baked goods—I’ve been spoiled by the Toronto Farmers Market (I’m a Toronto, Canada native) as there is an allergy bread stand that sells fresh baked kamut and quinoa breads that are delicious.

In terms of pasta, again a lot of companies promote corn or rice pasta however I recommend products made of millet, quinoa, buckwheat or kamut. All three are much more nutritious flours (they’re protein packed) and have substantial flavor. They cook well and are amenable to numerous pasta dishes. I would recommend Whole Foods’ Eden Organic brand.

If you’re going to bake, check out this guest post on using gluten-free flours that I wrote for Lovely Healthy, a lifestyle blog maintained by Giuliana Hazelwood. The key here is combining different ones for the best results.

SA: How did your friends react to your special diet? Were they supportive?

EK: Incredibly supportive. My friends have been wonderful. They are always patient when we go to a restaurant and I ask the waiter multiple questions. They are always willing to cook in a way that accommodates me if we’re making a meal together. They have also gotten quite good at asking questions for me when I forget, or pointing out meals or recipes I might enjoy. I think I may have won them over with my baking—the right combination of gluten-free flours to make cookies, brownies, pies, muffins or cake can win anyone over.

SA: How did you handle going to social gatherings with food or drink that might contain gluten?

EK: Great question. If I know the person who is hosting the event well, I usually ask them what the meal will be and who is bringing what. If I don’t know the person well, I often ask if I can bring a dish I know I can eat to contribute to the event. Otherwise, I can pack snack bags of trail mix or veggies in my purse in case there is nothing for me to eat. People usually serve both wine and beer at gatherings so I just go for the wine or a mixed drink, if it’s available. Just remember to check the ingredients before it gets mixed together.

Read: Part 1: Dining Hall Dilemmas: Nutritional Success Equals Academic Success
           Part 3: Dining Hall Dilemmas: The Benefits of a Vegan Diet
          Part 4: Dining Hall Dilemmas: Controlling Diabetes in College

Do you have any stories about how to choose foods in a college dining hall for a gluten sensitivity? Do you have your own college food story to tell? Share with us below.


Emma Krause currently works as the Grassroots and Communications Coordinator for Governor Deval Patrick’s political committee. She graduated from Emerson College in May of 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies and minored in Political Science and Literature. She is a dual USCanadian citizen who hails from Toronto, Canada. When she’s not working for the Governor or volunteering on Massachusetts political campaigns, you’ll find Emma on her yoga mat, running on the Charles River Esplanade, reading the New York Times, or cooking with way too much curry. 



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  1. Lynell E Nov 22, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    As the parent of a college-bound gluten free child and a college counselor to countless others, this was a great article and I was happy to re-post it on my web page.

    • Diane Nov 23, 2013 at 11:02 PM

      Thanks, Lynell, for spreading the word. We hope that others will continue to add their own experiences, tips, and stories into the mix!

  2. food allergies Nov 29, 2013 at 2:43 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful post. I found it extremely useful and informative.