Gluten Free College Tips (Guest Blogger Gfreebennie)

Hey everyone! My name is Allie (gfreebennie), and I am a first year student studying Spanish, French, and Secondary Education at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University (also known as St. Ben’s/St. John’s) in central Minnesota. I grew up in Eden Prairie, MN and have been participating in sports my entire life. From softball and soccer until 8th grade, to cross country running, Nordic skiing, and track and field in high school, being active has been a huge part of my life. Being an athlete, fueling my body has also been a big part of my life, especially carbo-loading.  I cannot even count the number of pasta feeds and ice cream socials I have attended throughout my life.  My entire life I have loved food, but my body has not always loved food.  I can remember eating boxes upon boxes of cereal as a little kid, and my mom had to hide the “sugared cereal” (Fruity Loops were my favorite) so that I was only able to eat it as a Saturday morning treat.  Up until high school, pasta, especially anything of the fettuccini type, was my favorite food, in addition to buttery garlic bread. Despite these somewhat unhealthy foods being my favorites, my parents raised me to eat fairly healthy, and I have always loved fruits and veggies in general.

My entire life, I have been on the thin side, but have had the appetite and metabolism of a racehorse. During my 7th grade growth spurt, I ate and ate and ate but never gained much weight. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but my parents were always worried about me being underweight, despite all the food I was eating. Now that I think about it, my failure to gain weight was a probably a sign of an undiagnosed gluten intolerance. Stomach problems have been an issue most of my life, but they became the worse throughout high school. As a little kid, I always complained of my “tummy hurting” but my parents blew it off as stress and an emotional attachment. Throughout high school, the stomachaches became more severe, and I started to suffer from other symptoms such as bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.  It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized these symptoms were not normal.  I was gone for a week on a church trip, and after suffering from horrible stomach pains on a daily basis, I realized I needed to take control of
my health. 

After talking to some family friends of mine whose entire family is gluten-free, I realized I was suffering from some of the same exact symptoms as they had suffered from.  I did a gluten-free trial in April 2012, and finally gave up gluten for good in June 2012.  I have discovered that I have lactose intolerance as well, and am now both gluten and lactose free.  Eating both gluten and lactose free in college has been a challenge, but I feel so much healthier [granted I have not been glutened].  The past year has been a roller coaster, both emotionally and physically.  Although giving up gluten and lactose has been such a blessing for my health, I have become very sensitive to both.  8 months ago, a bite of bread would give me horrible bloating and cramping for a few days, while today, if I eat any food that has been cross contaminated, (such as Brach’s Candy Hearts) I am sick for 1-2 days and under the weather for up to a week.  I am currently in the process of healing from being glutened frequently, and I am thankful to say that my body is finally starting to thrive on a gluten / lactose free diet.  I am thankful for every day that I feel healthy, and for the days that I don’t, I use it as a learning experience for the future.    

What made you want to start your blog?
The amazing celiac/gluten free community is the main reason I chose to start my blog.When I first went gluten-free, it was very hard emotionally for me. I felt alone and like no one understood what I was going through. It was very frightening entering college as a newly gluten and lactose free student, and it felt like a daunting task to keep up such a strict diet in college, in addition to adjusting to a new home, making new friends, getting good grades, and participating in sports (I am on the CSB/SJU Nordic ski team and an avid biker and runner). I started to Google gluten free tips, recipes, and other information, and I was overwhelmed by the support group surrounding me.

The first time I Googled “gluten free in college” I came across the NFCA’s page of gluten-free bloggers and immediately fell in love with the blog (written by Candice Clifford).  It was one of the first gluten-free blogs I ever found, and for once, I felt like I was not alone.  Over a week of vacation, I read every single one of Candice’s blog posts.  While reading these posts, I smiled over the positive posts and I cried over the personal, more heartbreaking posts, and it finally hit me that there are other people out there going through much worse than me.  

Throughout the past few months, I have fallen in love with multiple other gluten-free blogs, and I have found my itch for cooking and baking.  Going gluten-free has caused me to fall in love with cooking/baking again, and as a gluten-free college student, I have become very creative in the kitchen.  Following various blogs has given me a sense of hope and empowerment in my life, and if I am having a bad day, reading some of my favorite blogs never fails to put a smile on my face.  I started my blog without much thought. I literally woke up one day, and thought, today is the day.  I want to give back to others (especially other college students) what the gluten-free community has given to me.   

Should you expect a lot of gluten-free options available when going to college?
The gluten free options in college are much better than they were in the past and are slowly improving, but for a highly sensitive Celiac/gluten intolerant individual, difficulties are always going to exist.  There are a lot of gluten-free options at my school, but I often find myself getting bored of the options.  We have 2 cafeterias (one on each campus) and 2 sub/burger shops, but I have found that only certain cafeterias and sub/burger shops offer safe gluten-free options.  The cafeteria at St. Ben’s is wonderful, and I have had a great experience with the gluten-free options.  There is a gluten-free fridge with Udi’s bread products, GF oatmeal packets, muffins, brownies [on a lucky day], quinoa, lunchmeat, granola, and GF condiments (peanut butter, jelly, cream cheese), which I use on a daily basis.  In terms of main food options, I eat a lot of salads, stir fry, veggies, fruit, and salsa/chips/beans.  We also have the option of calling ahead to order gluten-free pasta, pizza, burgers, and baked potatoes, which I have yet to take advantage of (mainly because I am so busy and never know what time of the day/what I will be eating). 

The cafeteria at St. John’s has much fewer gluten-free options, and I have been glutened various times by meat that the workers “claimed” to be gluten-free.  The only positive aspect about the gluten-free options at St. John’s is that there is a certified GF station with a toaster, bags of Udi’s bread, and a gluten-free cereal bar (Chex varieties, Rice Krispies, Cocoa/Fruity Pebbles, Glutino).  Our sub/burger shop called “McGlynn’s” also has Udi’s gluten-free bread and hamburger buns, but I would not consider it very gluten-free friendly because of cross contamination risks.  I am lucky to attend a wonderful college with so many options. Although I often get bored of eating the same foods on a regular basis, I try to make a few meals in my dorm as a well such as smoothies, instant rice/quinoa, and instant oatmeal.  

What are some tips you can give for having gluten-free food in college?
  • Stock up your pantry and fridge early-you will go through snacks and fresh fruit/veggies quickly!
  • Make sure you clearly explain your gluten intolerance/celiac disease to your roommate(s) and friends, with everything from cross contamination, to what foods you are not to share, to what happens when you get glutened.  
  • Also, make sure you have a dedicated part of your dorm room to store only gluten-free food.  My roommate has been absolutely amazing with my gluten intolerance needs.  She is very understanding, and whenever I get sick, she always makes sure to give me space and will often get me medicine and food from the cafeteria if I am not able to leave my room.  Establishing a good relationship with your roommate(s) about your needs is essential!
  • Do not accept food that you have not read the label of.  I have made this mistake, and I ended up getting glutened after not reading the label of the Brach’s candy hearts that my professors passed out to the class.  
  • Have a go-to snack (so you don’t feel left out) for when your friends are munching on pizza at 2am- my favorites are popcorn or gluten-free homemade puppy chow. 
  • Talk to the chefs and other kitchen staff about your needs, and make sure they are aware of cross-contamination risks.  For example, if you ask for veggies and meat in your stir-fry, make sure they cook it on a separate grill with clean utensils. 
  • Don’t worry if you run out of your own gluten-free snacks.  Yes, there is the option of going grocery shopping on a regular basis, but if you do this on a weekly basis, you might go broke (which I have come close to doing).  Instead, use all your food resources to your advantage, especially all of the natural gluten-free options and snacks the dining facilities offer.  For example, stock up on bananas, apples, carrots, GF oatmeal packets, and spinach from the cafeteria.  I am allowed to take food out of the cafeteria, so I figure, why not use all of my resources to my advantage and make use of the $2,500 meal plan I am paying for!?!  

What are your top 5 go to snacks to make eating Gfree in college easiest?
  1. Smoothies: this is not always an option for every gluten-free college student, but I would highly recommend investing in a Magic Bullet to make homemade smoothies/shakes in. Perfect for breakfast, an afternoon snack, or dessert!  I have a lot of fresh fruit, veggies, and juice/almond milk in my fridge, but I have also found that once I run out of these items, I can find a lot of the same ingredients in the cafeteria (ex: peanut butter cups, chocolate almond/soy milk, bananas, and ice cubes from the ice dispenser make an easy, delicious “nutter butter” smoothie).

  2. Gluten-Free Granola Bars: my favorites are Kind BarsLarabars, chocolate Enjoy Life Bars.

  3. Bananas/Apples/Carrots and Peanut Butter: we always have mini peanut butter cups, apples, carrots, and bananas available in the cafeteria, and it is a tasty, healthy snack to take on the go!

  4. Rice Cake Sandwiches: Since gluten-free bread is not always available at the tip of my hands, I like making pb&j rice cake sandwiches to take on the go.

  5. Dried Fruit/Nut trail-mix: I like making my own homemade trail-mix such as cranberries, almonds, pumpkin seeds, dried coconut, and dark chocolate (I only buy the Enjoy Life brand).

Does it seem like colleges are getting better at providing Gfree options? What could they be doing better?
I definitely think that colleges are getting better at providing gluten-free options! Our school has introduced more and more gluten-free options over the past year, which has been really exciting! The dietician who works in our cafeteria is very supportive and willing to meet with you to discuss your needs. This is something I would highly recommend doing while touring colleges or after you have been accepted to a college.  The more you get to know the dietitian  the better able the school will be to fit your needs.  Also, I would recommend getting to know the chefs and other workers in the cafeteria-they are very friendly and have prepared special meals for me on a regular basis!  One thing I think colleges could be doing better is to be more aware of cross contamination issues, especially with the main food lines/grills.  Nothing is worse than having your week ruined by meat that has been cross-contaminated on the grill.

What do you do when it comes to taking classes and getting glutened?
I have missed class two times as a result of getting glutened.  These two specific times, I was literally stuck in the bathroom and was confined to my dorm room for the rest of the day.  There was another time when I had to leave class halfway through because I got sick, which was a horrible experience, but my professor was very understanding, luckily.  Both times I have missed class, my professors have been very understanding and have given me an excused absence.  I had a professor first semester that did not excuse me for missing class when I had a high fever and sinus infection (in addition to a doctor’s note), so it usually depends on the professor.  But overall, most professors are highly understanding, and it often helps to talk to them at the beginning of the semester to explain to them your situation.  

There have been other times after I have been glutened when I simply have to go to class and power through it (granted I am usually stocked up on Immodium, Tums, Gas-X and ginger tea).  It is not always easy powering through class from 8am-12:30pm when you have been up all night because of gluten-insomnia, bloating, and nausea.  There are some days after getting glutened where I cannot stomach much food and will just drink cups and cups of ginger tea to prevent nausea.  It takes a lot of mental concentration to stay focused on school when I am not feeling 100%, but I am lucky to have a great group of friends and understanding professors who support me. 

Thanks a lot to Allie for the great tips and post she did for me! It helped me a lot and hopefully it helped you too! Check out Allie's blog!
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  1. Thanks again for featuring me, Taylor! :)

  2. You're welcome. Thanks a lot for writing it! It's a great post and will be very helpful to others! :)