Going Gluten-Free on Campus: Healthy Dining or Eating Disorder?

By Paul Gaita 07/01/14

Researchers may have found a link between an increase in gluten-free meal options and a growing number of college students with eating disorders.

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A report from the National Eating Disorders Association has found that the rate of eating disorders among college students has more than doubled, with 20% of female students and 10% of male students now reporting some form of disordered eating during their four years in school.

Researchers are now attempting to draw a connection between the rise in these numbers and a recent boom in gluten-free dining choices on campuses. Individuals suffering from celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, are required to follow a gluten-free diet, which is the only existing treatment for the disease.

College campuses across the United States have attempted to accommodate celiac patients by offering gluten-free choices in their daily menus; the University of Connecticut, for example, has 12,500 recipes, 20% of which are gluten-free. However, celiac disease affects only 1% of the population—which would represent just 225 people of the 22,500 that make up UConn’s student body—which means that many of these gluten-free dishes are being eaten by people who do not require this dietary restriction.

While this many not seem like a subject for concern, Jodi Krumholz, director of nutrition at the Renfrew Center of Florida, believes that consuming a gluten-free diet for reasons other than combating celiac disease is indicative of an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa, which is defined as an obsession with healthy eating.

According to her facility’s research, Krumholz noted that 20% of adults believe that they have some form of food allergy, even though the real number is closer to two percent. The massive gluten-free industry, which earned $10.5 billion in 2013, has been perceived by these individuals as a weight-loss tool and not a dietary requirement.

“Gluten has become a lot of what people think are fatty foods,” said Krumholz. “We get a lot of calls [from] people [who] want to be admitted [to our center], but don’t want to eat gluten or dairy.”

Rheumatology expert Dr. Mark Borgini supported Krumholz’s theory by noting “people read these articles on gluten and think that this might be the answer to the problems they have. [But] if you’re using this gluten fear as just another channel for a bigger problem—like an eating disorder—then that’s of real concern.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.