Every time I hiked into the Fresh Food Café, I had no idea what I would be able to eat or if I would get sick. The labels above each buffet section contained phrases such as “low sodium” or “low fat,” but only a third of the time did I see them read “gluten-free.” Sometimes, I read that the day’s barley stew was gluten-free.
I ate plain vegetables, dry salad leaves, grilled chicken and what I knew wouldn’t contain any gluten. I stayed away from containers close to croutons, and I often asked the manager and chef on duty if an entrée were gluten-free even when labels were available.
I hovered between two extremes: some leaves for dinner and candy bars for the library. Despite the high fat content of the chocolate and peanut butter bars I consumed, I lost too much weight and always experienced the symptoms of ingested gluten, or as I like to say, “I got the glute.” Increasingly, I forgot about the consequences and took chances on cafeteria food for the sake of eating. I was hungry.
Hoping to compensate for the lack of meal options with quantity, I took more protein and bigger scoops of mashed potatoes only to be scolded by the staff. I had to sneak in outside food and salad dressings. The cafeteria offered microwavable gluten-free meals, but I was already eating those every other day.
When my jeans dropped too easily and my tops revealed too-pronounced collarbones, I called my parents. They bought me a medium-sized fridge, and I lofted my bed and applied for a Zip card. Yet, as a I’m studying to be an engineer, there is only so much time I can devote to grocery store trips and cooking my own meals. I still had to go to the cafeteria. There’s a common saying that engineers in college can choose one item out of sleep, grades and a social life. Yet, I laughed to myself sometimes thinking that college engineers with celiac disease can choose one item out of four: sleep, grades, a social life or gluten-free food.
Although most of my symptoms after eating gluten last anywhere between a few hours to four days, I realized that some side effects are more long term. I went to my doctor to discuss the awful joint pain that I have developed in the past ten months; I had no idea this pain was related to the cross-contamination of my meals.
I take my celiac disease seriously, but I put the gravity of my health aside to eat a meal. Although a new dining service is coming to my university this fall, I didn’t purchase the meal plan, and I don’t plan on joining my friends too often in the cafeteria. I’m living in a dorm that provides a full-sized fridge and stovetop.
Sometimes I dread how much time I will have to put into cooking my own meals during college, but I’d rather lose sleep over a good meal than over poor health.