China’s medical nutrition mistakes: ‘You can’t starve a tumour to death’

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

China is lagging behind when it comes to medical nutrition.
China is lagging behind when it comes to medical nutrition.

Related tags Nutrition Malnutrition

Medical nutrition is not taken seriously enough in China, with a lack of patient, regulatory, and in some cases, physician knowledge contributing to the poor nutrient intake among cancer patients.

It has been argued that this is the second biggest reason why cancer survival rates in China are so low, with the first being late diagnosis.

Speaking at the China International Nutrition and Health Industry Summit held in Shanghai this week, Dr Shi Hanping said only 20% of cancer patients in the country had adequate nutrition therapy as part of their treatment. The figure in the US, by comparison, is more than three times higher.

“We found that 57% of tumour patients in China are suffering from medium to high malnutrition,”​ he added.

"There are many misunderstandings. Some people even think that good nutrition will prompt tumour growth and instead believe they can starve the tumour to death."

Money talks

And poor understanding isn’t limited to patients. Dr Shi, who is the chief member of TSI Group’s Global Scientific Advisory Board, said too many government leaders also believed that good medical “nutrition was a waste of money”.

Furthermore, a test on the medical nutrition knowledge of 3,000 doctors and nurses was passed by only 35% of the participants.

“There is simply not enough treatment, and not enough supplements. Even where there is, the use is not sufficient,” ​he added, pointing out that despite China’s vast population, the country accounts for only 6% of the global consumption of foods for medical use.

“Breast cancer or thyroid gland cancer is not meant to bring nutrition problems, but we are finding them in China, because people are staying clear of many foods and nutrients,”​ he added.

One major problem, according to Dr Shi — who is a surgeon — is that clinical nutritionists are not widely respected.

“Clinical nutrition experts in China are classed as technicians, even if they have a doctorate from Oxford or Harvard,” ​he said at the event, organised by the US-China Health Products Association.

“I respect the importance of nutrition therapy because I am a surgeon. And because I am a surgeon, the patient will obey what I say. But a clinical nutritionist can talk all day and no one will listen. Worryingly, sometimes the physician contradicts the nutritionist.”

He added that he believed there was a gradual shift in understanding taking place and that nutrition was starting to be taken more seriously in a medical setting.

Not only would that improve patient outcomes, but it can also substantially drive down government costs. It would also create more incentives for business innovation and growth, he added.

“I believe officials are now paying more attention to nutrition, and they have to. Even if you deduct the costs of buying nutrition products, the overall costs are reduced. There are studies that clearly show this, usually by over 20%.”

Quality products

He said it was crucial that regulations were put in place to standardise treatment, pay greater attention to nutritional support in the home and in hospices, and work with partners to establish criteria to measure the success of nutrition intervention.

“We need to speak up and endorse quality products, and we are calling on the government  to reduce the thresholds and the bar for clinical trials. All too often, it’s not possible to meet the foods for special medical purposes standards. We also hope foods for special medical purposes can be included in (the) hospital medical insurance system and national medical insurance systems. In some provinces it is now happening, but it needs to be done in more (provinces).”

But above all, he insisted more needed to be done to strengthen the publicity and promotion of medical nutrition because “there are so many misunderstandings”​.

“We must look at whole process. We can’t have people thinking they can starve a tumour because they are only actually starving themselves.”

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