One in 70 New Zealanders are estimated to have coeliac disease, but most of those people are unaware they do.

This week is Coeliac Awareness Week, and one Tauranga law firm is getting out its chequebook to support people living with the condition in Tauranga who are struggling to afford food.

Coeliac disease is a permanent auto-immune disorder that causes a reaction to dietary gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.

According to Coeliac New Zealand, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 New Zealanders have the disease, but up to 80 per cent of those people are unaware they have it.

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Someone who is aware is Bill Holland, a partner at Holland Beckett Law.

He suffers from coeliac disease and has led a fundraising effort for the Tauranga Community Foodbank, which helps, on average, one family a week who need gluten-free food.

Holland Beckett Law has donated $2000 to the foodbank, and the company's staff members have donated several hundred dollars in cash and gluten-free food items.

Staff put on a shared gluten-free morning tea yesterday and gathered up the donations.

"I know first-hand how difficult it can be to follow a gluten-free diet," Holland said.

"It is challenging at the best of times but having to cater for special dietary requirements when you're on a tight budget is an added pressure."

He said coeliac disease was not just a diet "fad".

"When you are a diagnosed coeliac, even a crumb containing gluten can cause an auto-immune reaction and make you unwell. We hope in some small way that our contribution will help out families in need."

Foodbank manager Nicki Goodwin said the need for gluten-free food was growing.

"We are really grateful to Holland Beckett for their contribution, which will help ease the pressure on those gluten-free families that find themselves needing our help.

"I know the chocolate biscuits will be particularly well received."

The foodbank regularly receives donations of gluten-free staples like bread, buns and pizza bases, but was in need of gluten-free flour, cereal and biscuits on its shelves.

Goodwin said the $2000 donation was substantially more than the foodbank needed to spend on gluten-free food, so the money would also be put towards overall food costs.

"But the cash donations from the staff will definitely be spent on some staple gluten-free food supplies such as flour, pasta and soups."

Sally Holland, wife of Bill, is the author of the Goodbye Gluten cookbook and has previously volunteered at the foodbank.

She said while gluten-free food could be more expensive, people could cut costs by avoiding packaged and processed foods.

"It's about getting back to basics. Sticking to a good, old-fashioned diet of home cooked meals, using fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, and doing your own baking is not only easier on the wallet, but it's also a healthier option."

Coeliac New Zealand general manager Dana Alexander said people who need to be coeliac-safe could often be seen as difficult to cook for, cater for, or eat out with, but that was really not the case.

"For some, it can prevent them from seeking diagnosis, which means they won't get to the bottom of what's making them feel consistently unwell and could risk them developing a potentially lifelong chronic illness."


Fast facts
•In coeliac disease, the cells lining the small bowel (intestine) are damaged and inflamed. This causes flattening of the tiny, finger-like projections, called villi, which line the inside of the bowel.
•The function of the villi is to break down and absorb nutrients in food, and when they become flat, it interferes with the absorption of nutrients.
•Coeliac disease is hereditary, but both genetic and environmental factors play important roles.
•Common symptoms include diarrhoea, fatigue, weakness and lethargy, weight loss, chronic constipation, flatulence and abdominal distension, cramping and bloating, nausea and vomiting, anaemia and osteoporosis (thin bones).
Source: Coeliac New Zealand