Americans getting shorter, wider

November 1, 2010 by Vansh Muttreja, Duke University
Americans are getting shorter and wider

Americans are falling behind in the global height race as well.

“Height trends reveal hidden aspects of economic and social growth,” said Professor John Komlos, chair of the Institute of Economic History at the University of Munich, during his talk here on Thursday entitled “Economics and Human Biology: Why are Americans shorter and fatter?"

Americans were the tallest people in the world during the colonial times and the Industrial Revolution. However, over time, their physical stature has gradually diminished, and now they are one of the shortest populations among all the advanced nations.

“There are three significant periods of interest in this study- Contemporary United States, Industrial Revolution and Antebellum United States.”

Height is a historical record of health and nutrition until age 20, and is an important indicator of biological well being, Komlos said. Eighty percent of a person’s height from conception till the age of 20 depends on genetics, while the other 20 percent depends on external factors. “It is this 20 percent which leads to the differences in heights from region to region.”

During the Colonial times, were the tallest in the world. In the case of the Industrial Revolution and the Antebellum Era, the heights of people in the industrialized countries were shrinking even when the average incomes were increasing.

“Total average height decreased during these periods; however this was not the case if you consider only the richer people. This was primarily because they were able to pay for their nutrition even when the prices of food were going up.”

Thus, according to Komlos, income and other money measures do not completely reveal the well being of a nation. “Standard of living is multidimensional. Height, health and happiness are outcome measures of welfare, which are better and more direct than income.”

His research showed that the average height of the Dutch increased by almost 8 inches since the middle of the 19th century, compared to an increase of just 2 inches in the height of Americans.

A family’s socio-economic status, externalities in the society and regional economy and nutrient use are some factors that affect a person’s .

“Americans are shorter because of the existence of inequality in the society, an uninsured safety net that is not as strong as that in other advanced nations, less robust health care system, and a poorer diet.”

These factors also explain why Americans are relatively fatter compared to their modern counterparts.

“Lack of consumer protection, bias towards the present (instant gratification), overindulgence, lack of will power and countervailing abilities, are other reasons for these anomalies.”

More information: To read more about John Komlos’ anthropometric history, follow this link.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Why sugary drinks and protein-rich meals don't go well together

July 20, 2017
Having a sugar-sweetened drink with a high-protein meal may negatively affect energy balance, alter food preferences and cause the body to store more fat, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Nutrition.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

High-dose vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles for children

July 18, 2017
Giving children high doses of vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles, a new study has found.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 01, 2010
His research showed that the average height of the Dutch increased by almost 8 inches since the middle of the 19th century, compared to an increase of just 2 inches in the height of Americans.

What was the total height at the beginning and end for both countries, not just the total change? Were the Dutch shorter and then caught up? Have they passed the Americans? How equal were the two groups then and now?
not rated yet Nov 01, 2010
The Dutch are currently the tallest people in the world. The men average 6.7 cm taller than American men. So, we can conclude that they were 12 cm shorter 100 years ago and surpassed the US.

not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
There's a RACE? I'm short (5'3"), always have been, and I'm just fine with that. Is that a deformity? An anomaly? Something wrong with being short?
1 / 5 (3) Nov 03, 2010
The ratio between sexual and asexual reproduction is of evolutionary origin and its adjusted dynamically with respect to optimal length of reproduction cycle and frequency of mutagenesis. The stable wealthy living conditions lead to diminishing of sexual dimorphism, escalation of cancer and asexual forms of reproduction (infertility, endiometriosis). The snowball period in precambrium initiated the evolution of sexual reproduction. This is energetically expensive, but it enables to mutate faster in a reaction to unstable life environment. For example, many protozoa are breeding asexually in wealthy living conditions and they're shrinking in size during this, because of shorter generation cycle and absence of predators and mating concurrence. The sharks at the bottom of oceans are protected against environmental changes, so they're breeding asexually. We still should still understand better various evolutionary feedbacks, which are hardwired in our genes.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 03, 2010
On the other hand, the phylogenesis observed should be cleaned from demographic trends, for example from increasing immigration from East Asia countries, where people are smaller in general.
not rated yet Dec 07, 2010

@Slotin Good idea. With both the Hispanic and the Asian immigration (these being the greatest in number) that could account for average height differences. Of course, neither of these population is known for obesity which is the other metric being evaluated.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.