Thanks to Janelle Pugh for this guest blog post. I met Janelle on Twitter about six months ago and I wanted her to share her story because there are some similarities to mine. As most of you know I was diagnosed with gluten-intolerance seventeen years ago when I was in college. She was also diagnosed at an early age but what I want to highlight is the universities seventeen years ago had no resources or options and it was a struggle. She’s currently attending Ohio State University and I’m thrilled to hear that college students have options now. Thanks Janelle for sharing your story, I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did!
Cheater Turned Dietitian: My Gluten Free Journey Through Life and College
To say that my journey with Celiac disease is a unique one would probably be an understatement. To begin, we need to go back about 20 years. Let’s set the scene: Antioch, California in the early 90’s. A time when, I assure you, no one was reporting on gluten free diets being a fad. In fact, I can guess that the average person had no clue what “gluten” was, let alone that someday it would be “trendy” for them to remove it from their diet to lose weight. Major companies weren’t labeling their products “gluten free” and there certainly weren’t gluten free menus at restaurants. It was a different time. So different, that when I was diagnosed with Celiac disease as a toddler, my parents were told that I’d “grow out of it”, but I’ll get back to that.
As a child, I was perpetually sick. It seemed no matter what my parents fed me (ironically, I ate a lot of cream of wheat) I would be sick immediately after. Thankfully, they found a doctor who ultimately diagnosed me with Celiac. This is still remarkable to me as so many people go undiagnosed for years now. But what is also remarkable is how little they knew about this disease. I realize this isn’t anyone’s fault. Science and medicine are constantly changing and making developments. But, wow. So, we’re back to me “growing out of” Celiac disease. How I wish this were the case!
Until I was in the 5th grade, I followed the gluten free diet. Pamela’s Products were one of the few gluten free brands that existed back then. The cookies were my favorite and still are today – I am ever thankful for Pamela! Did you notice that I said “until the 5th grade” a few sentences ago? That probably made you cringe. Does that mean I ate gluten? Unfortunately, it does. I ate gluten for about 8 years knowing I had Celiac disease as a child but thinking I had grown out of it because of what doctors told me. So now you’re probably thinking, “you must have been so sick all those years!” But I wasn’t. I don’t ever remember feeling sick, which just perpetuated the lie that I had grown out of Celiac.
My senior year of high school my parents and I started talking and decided to have me tested for Celiac again. I can’t remember how this came about but I do remember being devastated. I didn’t want to be gluten free and all those years ago doctors told me I’d grow out of it, so surely I had! Well, clearly, we were wrong, and I had a lot to learn about my new life with Celiac disease. In the beginning, I cheated. I’d have a bite of pasta, a topping off of a piece of pizza, and I’d be so frustrated when I didn’t get sick! I could not understand why I needed to be gluten free if gluten didn’t affect me like it did everyone else with Celiac.
I’m not sure what caused the epiphany but before I started college at Miami University, I decided to take charge of my health. I read up on Celiac disease and the gluten free diet. I learned how widespread the disease had become, which shocked me. I learned that you could have Celiac without the gastrointestinal problems. I learned that other college students were gluten free. I learned that I had to take care of myself. I learned that no matter what my family thought about gluten and cross contamination, I had to be in charge of my health. So I took charge.
And here I am; a college student at the Ohio State University, studying to become a dietitian to help others transition to the gluten free lifestyle. It took me a long time to reach where I am now. As I said, I started college at Miami University in Ohio. Though I only attended for a semester, the gluten free experience was nothing but positive. In the summer before I started my freshman year there was an orientation. At this event, my family and I were able to meet with one of Miami’s dietitians to discuss how they could accommodate my dietary needs. The dietitian was nothing but helpful and understanding as her daughter was also gluten intolerant. When it came time to start classes in the fall, my parents dropped me off with all kinds of gluten free food and then, I was on my own. I was able to keep salad dressing, condiments, and even gluten free flour in the dining hall closest to my dorm to use whenever I needed. On Saturday mornings, when everyone on campus was sleeping in and dragging him or herself to brunch mid-day, I was able to join them because the cook on duty would make me a special plate of gluten free pancakes. It was awesome! I did try to cook and eat breakfast and lunches in the dorm, but dinner was usually at the dining hall. I could even get gluten free pizza at one of the campus restaurants! So why did I leave Miami? Well, it had nothing to do with gluten or food. I had no idea what I wanted to study or do with my life, and Miami was far too expensive to waste much time. For many reasons I decided to come home and take some time to figure things out while taking online classes through a local community college, which turned out to be a great, cheap way to get general classes out of the way. I could also live at home, where I didn’t have to worry about food.
One night while I was working, a friend of mine came to visit me. She attended Ohio State University and was apart of their medical dietetics program. She wanted to become a dietitian to help others who, like herself, are living with diabetes. As she told me about the program and how she thought it was something I’d really enjoy, I got so excited. What a perfect way to help others avoid going through what I went through with Celiac disease! In an instant, I knew that was my passion.
Attending Ohio State is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I live at home and commute to campus to save money. Most days I pack a lunch. Occasionally I buy lunch at one of the many on campus dining locations but in an effort to save money and reduce the risk of cross contamination, I do usually pack a lot of snacks and food. Though I will say that Ohio State has a great system online for those with special dietary needs to figure out what they can eat at various locations on campus. I’ve seen more and more gluten free baked goods popping up at coffee shops on campus and in the libraries. Some are even offering gluten free sandwiches made with Udi’s bread! The advancements are huge and I am constantly surprised by how far the gluten free world has come compared to when I was a child and had very limited options.
Fellow gluten free college students and parents, you have so much to be thankful for. There are countless resources available to you like twitter, blogs, and various organizations. My best piece of advice is to be your own advocate. Don’t let any one or any thing hold you back from what you want to do because you have Celiac disease or need to be gluten free. Fight for yourself and your right to eat well. You deserve it.
Connect with Janelle
Thank you for this, Ken! If you’d ever like me to guest post again or want to collaborate, please let me know!