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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Celiac disease: Growing prevalence

Published: November 12, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

We all love our bagels and schmear. We love our kugel and ruggelah on holidays. We love the free pizza that clubs give out. Case in point, I think I can safely make the assumption that, as a whole, Brandeis is a carb-loving institution and we would be devastated if we couldn’t eat these foods. Now, what if I told you there is a growing population of people allergic to all of these foods!? Oy vey is right, but luckily a growing awareness of this condition has helped those live more easily with a gluten allergy. According to the Celiac Spruce Association (CSA), one in 133 people suffer from Celiac Disease, with women suffering three times more than men. Brandeis nutritionist Laura O’Gara said the growing spread of the disease could be attributed either to more prevalence of the disease or to better diagnosis tactics. So, how do we know if we are at risk of losing our bagels? To investigate this, I interviewed a Brandeis student with the gluten allergy and Laura O’Gara to learn more about what the disease is and what Brandeis accommodations there are on campus for students with Celiac disease.

According to the CSA, the definition of Celiac Disease is an inherited disease, which has an autoimmune response triggered by gluten that causes damage in the small intestine’s villi, leading to malabsorption of nutrients in the small intestine. The term gluten represents any type of storage proteins like gliadin or secalin found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, rice, etc. Symptoms usually consist of gastrointestinal upset and sometimes a skin condition called herpataformis dermatitis. The disease can be triggered at any age and once obtained is usually lifelong and incurable, thus the only treatment is a gluten free diet. Being banned forever from carrot cake and oatmeal raisin cookies sounds unbearable; however, according to the Brandeis nutritionist and a Brandeis student, this lifestyle is fairly achievable on the Brandeis campus.

The Brandeis University Dining Service published a gluten-free options brochure, which highlights all the areas in which gluten intolerant students can access suitable food on campus. Accommodations include gluten-free snacks available in the C-store, the ability to pre-order special meals, special refrigerators and toaster ovens with gluten-free food in Usdan and Sherman and knowledgeable managers who can provide gluten information on any of the food selections offered for the day. Bret Matthew, a student with the gluten allergy, expressed how the increased awareness of the disease has helped his transition into a gluten-free diet with relative ease, “out in the real world a lot of food establishments are adjusting their menus to be more gluten intolerance-friendly, so it’s not too hard to go out. I can even find gluten-free beer pretty easily.”

One complaint of his, though, was that most of the gluten-free products on campus are vegetarian, which is only nice, for well, vegetarians. His advice was that any student diagnosed with Celiac disease should meet with the nutritionist ASAP as being gluten-free requires more than just avoiding the obvious bread products, as he mentioned even “thick soup presents a risk.” Bret reflects on the necessary skills to be a gluten-free expert, “Celiacs need to learn how to become compulsive food label readers, and how to recognize what we call “hidden gluten” (i.e. less obvious sources of gluten). For a gluten-free diet to work, you have to go for it 100%. But sticking with it is worth it.”

What about this new trend of gluten-free dieting? Can you be gluten-free if you’re not a Celiac? O’Gara advises against this, “besides cost and inconvenience are that the gluten free products are quite often low in fiber and are not enriched with the B-vitamins and iron that you may find in their wheat-containing counterparts.” In short, I’d stick to eating balanced meals instead of trying new dieting tactics like gluten-free if you don’t need to.

I hope that by being aware of diseases and allergies that are within our Brandeis community, we can help advocate for better accommodations of our peers as well as appreciate the daily struggles they encounter. Luckily, there is hope for my fellow Celiac cake lovers, as many alternative options are now available, but if you’re not a Celiac, just have your regular cake and eat it too.

I just want to remind everyone that you can still get your flu shot at the health center, and I will give you a lollypop and a high five if you do. No seriously, I will, come find or email me and we will make it happen. As always, tune in next week for more health tips and email me at with any health-related questions you may have.