Are gluten-free dining halls feeding potential eating disorders?

MANSFIELD, Conn.—A gluten-free diet is the best remedy for combating the ills of celiac disease, but a growing number of people are cutting out the protein as an excuse to just plain diet. And with many campus dining halls taking measures to cater to a small percentage of on-campus celiac sufferers — and a larger number of gluten-free dieters — some colleges may also be inadvertently feeding the fire of potential eating disorders.

Robert Landolphi, culinary development manager at University of Connecticut, estimates that about 20% of the 12,500 recipes served on campus are gluten-free. Each of the nine dining halls also has an isolated galley with pantries and freezers stocked with gluten-free versions of dishes being served. There are even designated toasters to prevent cross-contamination. UConn also offers gluten-free menus in campus restaurants and an entire wing of the on-campus convenience store is gluten-free.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), only about 1% of the population has celiac disease, or 1 in 133 people. At a college the size of  UConn, with a 22,500 undergraduate population, that translates to about 225 people on campus —indicating that the school’s cafeterias are serving more than just the celiac suffers.

UConn does not require medical documentation from students eating the gluten-free products nor track how many students are eating gluten-free meals. Some schools like Tufts University, however, require special keys for medically documented students to access the gluten-free selections. Harvard University pairs individual students with nutritionists to go over what is safe and unsafe for students to eat in the cafeterias and can even submit special orders. UConn also provides this option.

UConn attempts to mainstream their gluten-free choices to provide students with a level of comfort, says Dennis Pierce, executive director of Dining Services at UConn. “Social dining as a community is a big part of going to college,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to wear this sign that says ‘I eat different.’ So having students go through a screening process is a step individuals shouldn’t have to take.”