Americans No Longer Tallest

Height is influenced by the quality of nutrition in childhood and as a result, in many societies, it has also been a class indicator. One example: Winston Churchill, who as a Liberal Party member and Home Secretary, was instrumental in the passage of minimum wages and the Liberal Reforms, which among other things, provided for free school meals for children and made it illegal to sell alcohol or tobacco to children (this in the 1906-1914 period). Churchill later said he could see the results of these programs. In the Great War, there was a visible difference between the puny, scrawny enlisted men, who came from the working classes, and the taller aristocratic officers. By World War II, you couldn’t tell a man’s class by his build.

An Associated Press story tells us that Americans are not only no longer the tallest nation in the world, but that quite a few nations have surpassed us:

Even residents of the formerly communist East Germany are taller than Americans today. In Holland, the tallest country in the world, the typical man now measures 6 feet, a good two inches more than his average American counterpart.

Compare that to 1850, when the situation was reversed. Not just the Dutch but all the nations of western Europe stood 2 1/2 inches shorter than their American brethren.

Does it really matter? Does being taller give the Dutch any advantage over say, the Chinese (men 5 feet, 4.9 inches; women 5 feet, 0.8 inches) or the Brazilians (men 5 feet, 6.5 inches; women 5 feet, 3 inches)?

Many economists would argue that it does matter, because height is correlated with numerous measures of a population’s well-being. Tall people are healthier, wealthier and live longer than short people. Some researchers have even suggested that tall people are more intelligent.

It’s not that being tall actually makes you smarter, richer or healthier. It’s that the same things that make you tall — a nutritious diet, good prenatal care and a healthy childhood — also benefit you in those other ways.

That makes height a good indicator for economists who are interested in measuring how well a nation provides for its citizens during their prime growing years. With one simple, easily collected statistic, economists can essentially measure how well a society prepares its children for life….

Height tells you about a segment of the population that is invisible to traditional economic statistics. Children don’t have jobs or own houses. They don’t buy durable goods, or invest in the stock market. But obviously, investments in their well-being are critical to a nation’s economic future….

Not surprisingly, rich countries tend to be taller simply because they have more resources to spend on feeding and caring for their children. But wealth doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a society will give its children what they need to thrive.

In the Czech Republic, per capita income is barely half of what it is in the United States. Even so, Czechs are taller than Americans. So are Belgians, who collect 84 percent as much income as Americans.

And those height differences translate into real benefits. A number of studies have shown that disease and malnutrition early in life — the same things that limit a person’s height — increase a person’s chances of developing heart disease and other life-shortening conditions later on. Though tall people are more likely to get cancer, they suffer less mortality overall than short people….

International statistics bear it out. Life expectancy in the Netherlands is 79.11 years; in Sweden it’s 80.63. America’s life expectancy of 78.00 years puts it in somewhat shorter company, just above Cyprus and a few notches below Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“Obviously America is not doing badly. It’s not at the level of developing nations,” Komlos said. “But it’s also not doing as well as it could.”

His latest research paper, published in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly, suggests the blame may lie with America’s poor diet and its expensive, inequitable health-care system.

“American children might consume more meals prepared outside of the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients,” wrote Komlos and co-author Benjamin E. Lauderdale of Princeton University. “Furthermore, the European welfare states provide a more comprehensive social safety net including universal health care coverage.”

In the United States, by comparison, an estimated 9 million children have no health insurance.

Thomas Schaller, in “The Long and the Short of It,” on the Guardian’s website, provides further comments:

America has dropped to 27th in the world in average male height.

Conservative politicians and pundits in the United States like to point to comparative rates of economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic as evidence that the larger welfare states of European economies are inferior to America’s leaner, meaner public sector and more vibrant economy. But when it comes to head-to-toe yardsticks, comparisons clearly favour the Old Country, where Dutch males are the tallest, the United Kingdom ranks 17th, and most countries outside the Iberian peninsula are taller than America.

Even Iraqi men – ranked 21st – are taller, on average, than the Americans who joined the Brits in invading that country more than four years ago….

Ohio State University economist Richard Steckel has shown that American height deficits compared to northern Europeans is attributable to lack of growth during infancy and adolescence, which he believes is partly a result of junk food diets. “If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then [Americans] may not be getting the micronutrients we need,” Dr Steckel told The New Yorker magazine a few years ago.

The same article cites a British study, conducted earlier this decade, in which one group of schoolchildren was fed hamburgers and French fries for lunch, while another was given World War II-style ration like corned beef and cabbage. Sure enough, in just eight weeks, the latter group was taller and slimmer than the ones on the typical modern diet.

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  1. Anonymous

    It would be interesting to examine the raw data and partition it based upon how many generations the subjects have been in the US. This would allow one to ask if the data was being skewed by immigration to the US.

  2. Scott

    Someone should email this post to David Stern, commissioner of the NBA:)…seriously, though I think that this study has a bias that was not noted in either press story.

    The USA has a large Hispanic population, far larger than any of the European or Middle Eastern countries mentioned. This population has largely immigrated from Latin America where the demographic makeup is such that the vast majority of residents have non-European ancestry. It is well documented that the aboriginal peoples of Central and South America are shorter on average than most other ethnic groups throughout the world. Therefore, the US average height is skewed downward by its relatively large proportion of shorter than average Latino/aboriginal residents.

    Incidentally, congratulations on an excellent blog. The posts are uniformly informative and well written.

  3. Yves Smith


    I probably should have quoted the initial AP article at greater length. It disputes the commonly-held view that Hispanics are inherently short in stature (although it provides no sources):

    “Like many human traits, an individual’s height is determined by a mix of genes and environment. Some experts put the contribution of genes at 40 percent, some at 70 percent, some even higher. But they all agree that aside from African pygmies and a few similar exceptions, most populations have about the same genetic potential for height.

    “That leaves environment to determine the differences in height between populations around the world, specifically the environment children experience from the moment of conception through adolescence….”

  4. Anonymous

    Dudes, there are tall folks in America, but they also tend to be obese.

    As for the NBA – dig up the stats for Croation leagues, or better yet, just take a look at the Olympics. The argument doesnt hold.


    The best way to question the statistics, is to ask whether an empirical corelation between nutrition and height has indeed been established. Intuitively, one would ask about Japan, with its rather good longetivity, but short median stature. The same can be said of Italy, or Spain. One would suppose these states equal or surpassing the nutrition of Greece or Turkey. Do they surpass their stature? Furthermore, the Dutch are definitely not the top in longetivity, etc.

  5. Yves Smith

    Dear Anon. 8:08 p.m.:

    Please note that the study reported in the AP story is about averages, not about extremes. It was conducted by an economic historian, one John Komios, who as the article states is “an economic historian at the University of Munich who was born in Hungary, grew up in Chicago, and has spent the last quarter century compiling data on the heights of nations,” and co-author Benjamin E. Lauderdale of Princeton University.

    Longevity in the Netherlands is higher than in the US. The AP story also said:

    ” Life expectancy in the Netherlands is 79.11 years; in Sweden it’s 80.63. America’s life expectancy of 78.00 years puts it in somewhat shorter company, just above Cyprus and a few notches below Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

    The article also notes:

    “Young adults in Japan and other prosperous Asian countries now stand nearly as tall as Americans do….

    “In the Czech Republic, per capita income is barely half of what it is in the United States. Even so, Czechs are taller than Americans. So are Belgians, who collect 84 percent as much income as Americans.”

    And BTW, Americans have shorter lifespans than Greeks:

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