Europeans are growing taller than Americans blame diet

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Europeans are growing taller than Americans blame diet

Why the differing growth spurts? This facinating article excerpt explains the ravages of diet on height

For centuries governments have kept careful records of their soldiers’ heights, providing a baseline against which modern populations are compared. (Records for women are much more scarce, but they tend to follow the same trends.)

Looking down these rows of men, four abreast, Komlos could see the shadowy ranks of their ancestors lined up behind them, from West Point cadets and Citadel graduates to Union soldiers, Revolutionary War soldiers, and fighters in the French and Indian War.

If you were to stretch a string from the head of the earliest soldier in that row to the head of the most recent recruit, you might expect it to trace an ascending line. Humans are an ever-improving species, the old evolution charts tell us; each generation is smarter, sleeker, and taller than the last.

Yet in Northern Europe over the past twelve hundred years human stature has followed a U-shaped curve: from a high around 800 A.D., to a low sometime in the seventeenth century, and back up again.

Charlemagne was well over six feet; the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. “They didn’t look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale,” the economist Robert Fogel told me. “They looked like thirteen-year-old girls.”


America was a good place to live in the eighteenth century. Game was abundant, land free for the clearing, settlement sparse enough to prevent epidemics. On Komlos’s graph, even the runaway slaves are five feet eight, and white colonists are five feet nine—a full three inches taller than the average European of the time.

... Quote:
So this is the eighteenth century. This is not problematic. It shows that Americans are well nourished. Terrific. What is problematic is what comes next.
Komlos said, slapping the files.

Around the time of the Civil War, Americans’ heights predictably decreased: Union soldiers dropped from sixty-eight to sixty-seven inches in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, and similar patterns held for West Point cadets, Amherst students, and free blacks in Maryland and Virginia. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the country seemed set to regain its eminence.

The economy was expanding at a dramatic rate, and public-hygiene campaigns were sweeping the cities clean at last: for the first time in American history, urbanites began to outgrow farmers.

Then something strange happened. While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, “the U.S. just went flat.” In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German.

But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven’t grown taller in fifty years.

By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.

The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics—which conducts periodic surveys of as many as thirty-five thousand Americans—women born in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties average just under five feet five. Those born a decade later are a third of an inch shorter.

Just in case I still thought this a trivial trend, Komlos put a final bar graph in front of me. It was entitled “Life Expectancy 2000.” Compared with people in thirty-six other industrialized countries, it showed, Americans rank twenty-eighth in average longevity—just above the Irish and the Cypriots (the Japanese top the rankings).

... Quote:
Ask yourself this. What is the difference between Western Europe and the U.S. that would work in this direction? It’s not income, since Americans, at least on paper, have been wealthier for more than a century. So what is it?
Komlos said, peering at me above his reading glasses.

As America’s rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, Komlos and others say.

The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they’re not alone.

As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller.

... Quote:
I’ve seen a similar thing in Guatemala. The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they’re still going to get exposed.
Bogin says. “

Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits.

“If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then we may not be getting the micronutrients we need,” he says.

In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.

From The New Yorker
By netchicken: posted on 14-1-2007

I think it has more to do with demographics now than anything.

In the days of the revolutionary war and after, most Americans were descended from Northern and western Europeans. Today, with the amount of immigration and mixing, shorter peoples are comming now, mainly Asians and Latinos who tend to be shorter. I suspect this affects the national average, especially when you consider also that interacial marriage is more commonplace. Where as European descended Americans make up 65% of the population in the states, Europeans are over 90% of the population in Europe.

Although living here, I must say, I dont see it. Most Europeans I have met, with the exception of northern and eastern Europeans, are alot smaller than most Americans Ive known.

And at 5 feet tall, in the states, Im the shortest caucasian person I know.
By Twilight_Rogue: posted on 15-1-2007

TR the article took immigration into account (I just didn't add it to try and keep it at a good size)

I am sure there are many people under 5 foot, but you just don't see them :)

Certianly the Dutch are really tall people. But Americans seem to be about the same height as me, 5 foot 11.

... Quote:
In the nineteenth century, when Americans were the tallest people in the world, the country took in floods of immigrants. And those Europeans, too, were small compared with native-born Americans. Malnourishment in a mother can cause a child not to grow as tall as it would otherwise.

But after three generations or so the immigrants catch up. Around the world, well-fed children differ in height by less than half an inch. In a few, rare cases, an entire people may share the same growth disorder.

African Pygmies, for instance, produce too few growth hormones and the proteins that bind them to tissues, so they can’t break five feet even on the best of diets. By and large, though, any population can grow as tall as any other.


Since the nineteen-twenties, the median height of Mexican-American teen-agers has nearly reached the United States’ norm. It’s that norm, and not the immigrants, that has failed to rise.
By netchicken: posted on 15-1-2007

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