Food for ThoughtDec/Jan 2012 Issue

Cheating in College

Newbie celiacs don’t “get it”

College student eating burger

© Thinkstock/iStockphoto

I had celiac disease before it was cool. Before “gluten free” appeared on counters and cupcakes everywhere from Whole Foods to local cafes. I’m a lifer. I’m a pro. I’ve been doing my damnedest to avoid the tiny protein since I was 18 months old.

Not so for most of my celiac peers. The friends I meet in college are new to the club. They’re coming off fresh diagnoses and newly prescribed gluten-free diets. So I teach them about cross contamination and the nuances of artificial colors, the importance of certified oats and the dangers of sushi rice. And for 29 days a month, they try really hard. But on day 30, they have a slice of pizza because it’s their birthday or a beer because they turn 21 or a piece of fried dough because, after all, they’re only at the fair once a year and besides, they’ve been so good this month. They don’t get it.

I recently met a girl with celiac disease at a friend’s party and we immediately bonded over our favorite gluten-free bakeries and cocktails. The next weekend, I saw her again at a barbecue, waiting in line for a cheeseburger to put in her white-bread bun. When I asked her about it, she informed me that it would be her only cheeseburger of the summer and she’d been so careful that month. She didn’t get it that she kept burning down a forest before it had a chance to grow back.

The problem with new celiacs isn’t how safe restaurants are, how clean the griddle is or how carefully the company has researched the source of its ingredients. It isn’t how informed the dining hall workers are or the minutia of what exactly is fried in the same container as what. The problem with new celiacs is they cheat. They reward themselves for good work by reversing precisely what they worked so hard to achieve. I’ve seen this done many times—not by people diagnosed as children but by those diagnosed when they’re old enough to know better.

To me, it’s selfish. Parents, chefs and waitstaff work diligently to prepare safe gluten-free food. Yet while chefs stress over separate utensils for the salad bar, college kids splurge on beer pong whenever a frat throws a huge ragger.

The problem points to a need for more education. Not for those preparing and serving food, but for those consuming it. For many celiacs, the consequences of eating gluten seem relatively minor—perhaps a stomach ache, some diarrhea, a rash. After all, if your disease was just diagnosed in early adulthood, you’ve lived most of your life consuming large amounts of wheat, rye, oats and barley. It’s easy to rationalize that splurging every once in a while is okay.

Celiacs need to understand that the disease has far greater consequences than an unsettled stomach. The fact is that failing to stringently adhere to a gluten-free diet destroys intestinal villi and leads to things like osteoporosis, other autoimmune diseases and cancer. These greater consequences need to be articulated to every newly diagnosed person. The same thing goes for the risks to one’s fertility. Celiacs should be told that a piece of cake every month might cost them the ability to have children. I try to explain this to my peers when I see them cheat but it needs to come from a doctor.

I hope the medical community can focus as much time and energy stressing strict dietary compliance as the celiac community spends educating food providers, manufacturers and servers. Only then will all the heightened public awareness and accommodation truly have an impact. LW

Marina Keegan, a life-long celiac, is a senior at Yale University.

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