Living on Campus with Coeliac Disease

1004
Photograph: Ian Meeks

I was really scared on my first night at University. I was nervous about meeting my new flatmates, afraid that I wouldn’t make any friends and terrified of living away from home for the first time. But to be honest I’d wager that most of us felt that way.

However, it turned out that my biggest hurdle that first night was a plate of lasagne.

It sounds daft but it’s true. The night we moved in my Freshers reps rounded up all my flatmates and herded us down to Trev to eat free lasagne together for tea. Except I can’t eat lasagne because I have Coeliac Disease.

Coeliac Disease is an auto-immune condition triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and (sometimes) oats. If I consume even a tiny amount of gluten – a crumb is enough – I could get severely ill because the immune response that it triggers damages the lining of my small intestine. The only treatment is following a lifelong gluten-free diet that completely avoids gluten-containing foods such as pastas, breads, cakes, biscuits, beers and so on. It can be difficult though, because gluten often turns up in really unexpected places.

According to statistics from Coeliac UK, 1 in 100 people in the UK have Coeliac Disease but only 24% of them are officially diagnosed. This leaves almost half a million individuals undiagnosed and suffering symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, constipation, tiredness, headaches, weight loss, hair loss and anaemia. If these symptoms didn’t reduce people’s quality of life enough, if left untreated for several years Coeliac Disease can also lead to chronic illnesses such as osteoporosis or bowl cancer.

So, while my flatmates sat on the floor of Trev and bonded awkwardly over lasagne, I went back to my flat with my Freshers rep to eat alone. With no time to cook, my poor rep got to witness the pitiful sight of me sat in my new kitchen, eating dry crackers glumly because I (mistakenly) thought that I had already let my illness get in the way of making friends at University.

The next few months brought several challenges so I’ve put together a few tips for anyone who has Coeliac Disease or other food intolerances and is living on campus:

 

1. Bring your own toaster and label all your food

I felt extremely ridiculous bringing my own toaster into the kitchen every morning, but it was necessary. In order to avoid gluten entirely you need to avoid cross-contamination: It only takes someone using your toaster or butter or something once for you to be ill.

 

2. Be prepared to budget like a pro

It seems like general student advice but the fact is that gluten-free substitutes are significantly more expensive than their ‘normal’ counterparts. If you have topay for prescriptions as well the foods available to you through your GP are also ridiculously expensive.

 

3. Find places you can eat on campus as soon as possible

The best way to find out what places on campus do gluten-free food is to just ask! A few recommendations are Cafe 21 (they do vegetarian stuff as well) and the Hub (they do delicious gluten-free soups). While they don’t do meals, many of the pubs, shops and eateries on campus offer cakes and other small confectionaries that are gluten-free.

 

4. Most importantly: Talk to your flatmates

It can be scary explaining your condition to strangers you’ve just met. Fearing that they’ll think you’re just a fussy eater or over-the-top is natural. The best course of action that you can take is to explain yourself clearly and to not tone-down the risks that cross-contamination poses to you. Create an environment where they feel comfortable to ask you questions and to tell you honestly if they think they’ve made a mistake and ‘contaminated’ your food. After all, its better that they tell you so that you can rectify the situation, rather than letting you get ill.

 

The 11th-17th of May was Coeliac Awareness week so there has never been a better time to learn more. If you think that you or someone you know has Coeliac Disease, speak to your GP and check out Coeliac UK’s website for more information: https://www.coeliac.org.uk