Mobile menu

Health is Wealth; Financial Burden of Gluten-Free Diet

November 30, 2023

Two people looking at vegetables in a grocery store. One is holding a paper list.

By Kate Ariano

Reach Beyond Celiac Ambassador Kate Ariano has experienced the impacts of celiac disease from her high school years to her early 20s. While managing the diet has always been her number one focus, Kate shares how she’s dealt with some of the mental health impacts of celiac disease, like the stress of maintaining a budget on the gluten-free diet.

In her first article, Kate shares her perspective on how the price of gluten-free food influenced her lifestyle and some of the tactics she uses to combat the burden.

How the price of gluten-free products can negatively impact your lifestyle

I spend $80 in groceries every week—one person cooking one meal a day.

Some people may think that’s a big chunk of change. Others might identify with the spend, perhaps even forking out more than I do each week. But is your food your medicine like mine is?

The gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment for individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine upon ingesting the protein gluten.

That means every week, I spend $8 on a package of four bagels, another $8 on a smaller-than-average loaf of bread, and I stock up on up-charged pasta. And, if I play my cards right, I make out like a bandit spending only $7 on a pack of doughnuts.

Spending more on gluten-free groceries is the harsh reality of the 1 in 100 Americans with celiac disease.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones nowadays; I live back at home with my parents, so I don’t have to buy enough food to cook every meal. I have a salary, I have reliable transportation, and I have access to three different grocery stores in a 10-minute radius.

But as a college student, just a couple years ago, my life wasn’t as predictable.

The stress of grocery shopping as a college student

When I think back to grocery runs with my housemates, I recall the overwhelming sense of dread that overtook me in checkout lines. I’d let my friends go first, embarrassed that they might gawk at my receipt.

I never wanted to spend that much on groceries at 21 years old.

We’d hit two, sometimes three, grocery stores on a Sunday just so I could get the products I needed. Smaller grocery chains didn’t have the expansive “Health Foods” aisle that my stores now do. It was mortifying.

According to a study out of the Columbia University School of Medicine, the cost of gluten-free food products, “while declining over the past 10 years, remains significantly higher than their wheat-based counterparts.” Why does my food—the only treatment for my disease—have to cost more?

I find myself asking questions like these rhetorically, knowing my pleas for more affordably-priced food are held captive by the cost of the ingredients used to make them. I get it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

When I think about the college student just like me who’s checking menus to see how much more the gluten-free hamburger bun is before going out with friends, it keeps me asking. It keeps me fighting.

Strategies for managing money: know that you’re not alone

When it comes to anxiety around food and money, finding a path forward isn’t always easy. Mental health is a much larger component of celiac disease than I think people realize. For me, so much of the invisible impact of this disease is about managing my diet on a budget.

But I’m finding my way. Every two weeks, I sit down and review my grocery spending like I’m at a business meeting. I use resources like the Beyond Celiac Gluten-Free on a Budget flyer to identify good deals, utilize coupons, and I look toward naturally gluten-free recipes to fill my plate. I may take a little more time to make my grocery lists than my friends, but you can’t put a price on peace of mind.

That peace is something I’m so lucky to have found. In a day and age where talking about mental health has become so much less stigmatized, it’s encouraging to know that the conversations are happening more frequently and honestly. The burden of going through this alone no longer weighs on my shoulders. The voices rallying for our community are louder than ever.

We are not alone.

So whether you’re managing the gluten-free diet while living your best life in college, spending your 20s just trying to figure your life out (like me), or you’re just struggling regardless of where you are in life, know that I see you. We hear you. And as the great cast of High School Musical once said: we’re all in this together.

Think you may have celiac disease?

Symptoms Checklist