By Maeve O’Keefe, Food & Health Editor
“Think of the standard, broke, college student’s diet, that’s made up of your beans on toast, pasta, sandwiches and chicken fillet rolls, pizza, cans of Heineken, Guinness… They all have gluten in them, so it’s a constant thing I need to be thinking about when eating or drinking,” Jamie, a second-year student in UCC tells me. Jamie is a coeliac, meaning he can’t consume gluten, something he says can be a hindrance while attending University. In speaking to Jamie, and other UCC students who have special dietary requirements, I became aware of how much I take for granted in my totally unrestricted diet. Popping to the shop to pick up some study snacks for a day in the library, or a late-night pizza and beer with roommates to celebrate submitting an assignment, are small aspects of a student’s everyday life that might need to be reconsidered if you’ve got a dietary condition, such as coeliac disease, diabetes, lactose intolerance, or a nut allergy.
Although following a special diet might be a little more awkward, expensive, or time consuming, all of the students I spoke to thankfully did not view their dietary requirements as a barrier to full participation in college life in any way when managed correctly. That said, it can be irritating when others are totally ignorant of their condition, as Matt, a third-year student with type 1 diabetes emphasised to me; “Sometimes people tell me that I don’t look like I have diabetes, which is just so frustrating, because they’re obviously making assumptions about what diabetes is, or why I have it.” With that in mind, whether you know someone who follows a special diet or not, it’s worthwhile understanding what it means to have a dietary condition. I spoke to six UCC students with different dietary conditions about what it’s like to manage their special diet as a college student, and what tips they’d share with other students living with dietary conditions.
Coeliac Disease/ Gluten Intolerance:
Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains, such as wheat, barley, spelt, and rye. Unfortunately for coeliac Jamie, and gluten intolerant Claire, these grains are staples in the Irish diet, and gluten can be found in bread, pasta, cake, and beer, among other regularly consumed foods. For those with coeliac disease, the body treats gluten like a foreign invader, attacking it and damaging the lining of the gut, which can cause serious problems in digesting vital nutrients. When a coeliac eats a food containing gluten, they can experience extreme digestive discomfort, and deficiencies in other nutrients.
Gluten free alternatives to bread, cakes, and pasta are thankfully becoming more commonplace in mainstream supermarkets, usually found in the healthy eating aisle, but it can still be challenging to find anything more than a packet of chocolate coated rice cakes in your standard college convenience store. “If you want to get something gluten free for lunch or a snack, you just have to go a bit further afield. There is so much out there, it’s just a matter of finding the good stuff,” according to Jamie. His sentiments are mirrored by Claire, who although not coeliac, is gluten intolerant, and feels sick and bloated after consuming gluten. She tells me that pizzas after a night out are not an option for her, but that in a way, her avoidance of gluten “makes [her] eat healthier foods, and prevents unplanned junk food after nights out.”
When many people think of someone with diabetes, they immediately think of unhealthy people, who are diabetic because they eat too much junk or drink too many fizzy drinks. Yet as Matt, who was diagnosed with diabetes at age 14 reminds me, having type 1 diabetes is “just bad luck.” “It means my pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, which you need to process glucose in carbohydrates, so I have to give myself an injection of insulin before I eat anything with carbs in it,” he explains. Although he managed his diabetes well in the strict routine of school, it took a little while for Matt to adjust to the less disciplined and more unpredictable lifestyle in college; “The nights out, drinking alcohol, more activity – It all affects your blood sugars, and being away from home, like where my family know how to help me if I have a hypo [low blood sugar], is hard to get used to.”
Matt recommends telling flatmates and friends about diabetes, to “just generally be honest about it and do the explaining early on.” It can be helpful for friends to know the signs of hypoglycaemia, or a drop in blood sugar levels, so that they can help out if Matt goes low. This is particularly important after nights out, due to alcohol’s effect on blood sugars; “Stuff like cider is really high in sugar, leading to a high immediately after drinking and possibly a low later
on in the night or the next day.” For this reason, diabetics should always keep a fast-acting energy drink or some glucose tablets with them, to counter the effects of low blood sugar. As well as that, Matt advises keeping a stash of glucose separate from the communal living spaces in his accommodation; “Like if there’s people over, and they see a load of Lucozade in the fridge in the kitchen, they’re just going to drink it. It’s not worth getting in a row over, especially when so many people think that I have diabetes because I drink too many fizzy drinks, or that I can’t ever have anything with sugar because of my diabetes.” This confusion arises from people mistaking type 1 diabetes, which is an inability to produce insulin, with type 2 diabetes; a resistance to insulin, which can be treated by tablets or dietary changes as well as typical insulin injections.
Lactose intolerance is one of the more common dietary requirements that affects college students in Ireland, and can vary in its impact on individuals. Lactose intolerance is caused by an inability to digest lactose, which is a sugar found in milk and dairy products. For Paul, a third-year student who is lactose intolerant, eating any food containing dairy, like cheese or yoghurt, can result in nausea as well as blemishes on the skin. Despite the fact that roughly 5% of the Irish population are lactose intolerant, Paul tells me that sourcing dairy free options can be difficult; “I suppose the food is more expensive if I want the dairy free option, and it’s harder to find, because only certain shops stock dairy free stuff.”
Rachel, who is in second year, finds that she is more conscious of her intolerance since the beginning of the pandemic, due to socially distanced coffee dates eclipsing other means of seeing people, because the commonly beloved “cappuccinos and lattes just make [her] stomach hurt.” Although many people with lactose intolerance can consume a little dairy without adverse effects, too much can result in bloating, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. That said, lactose free milks are becoming more accessible in supermarkets and cafes, and though the temptation not to indulge in McFlurry ice-creams persists, managing lactose intolerance in college is far from impossible.
Nut allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to the consumption of nuts such as peanuts, cashews, or hazelnuts, resulting in an inflammatory reaction and the release of a chemical called histamine. This allergic reaction can manifest itself in hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and even the potentially fatal anaphylaxis. Despite the dangers of her severe nut allergy, first-year student Rosie maintains that her condition “honestly does not make a massive difference” in her life, as she is used to it. Like others with dietary conditions, she has discovered products that she can safely incorporate into her diet, like Cadbury’s chocolate spread as an alternative to Nutella. It’s important for individuals with food allergies to double check the ingredients label on food they buy, and to be cautious when ordering food out in restaurants or cafes.
Adjusting to life in college with any condition or disability can be a challenge. Without the security and knowledge of family and friends at home, managing a dietary condition in college can feel overwhelming from time to time. Remember to avail of support services to scaffold against the toll of living with a dietary condition in college if you need to, be it by discussing your condition with your GP, registering with UCC’s Disability Support Service, or approaching student counselling. Ultimately, making an effort to understand and not dismiss the specific dietary requirements of others can make a big difference. You could try picking up a few gluten free biscuits for your next catch up with a coeliac friend, keeping some jelly babies in your car when giving a lift to a diabetic friend in case their blood sugars drop, or simply not saying “Ah go on,” when your lactose intolerant friend tells you that they can’t enjoy an ice cream sundae with you when the weather picks up.