Americans no longer lead the world in height — or health

Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It explores how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report. The report is an annual publication of Bread for the World Institute.

By Derek Schwabe

In 1896, the United States was among the tallest countries in the world, ranking third and fourth for highest average male and female height, respectively. That has all changed in the 100 years since, according to a new report and dataset on adult height by country. By 1996—the latest year available in the dataset—the United States had fallen to 37th place for men and 42nd place for women, experiencing the smallest average height gains of any high income country.

Rising average height is a reliable sign of expanding human development, and is associated with better nutrition, improved education outcomes, and higher incomes. The good news is that average heights have risen for all countries since 1896, affirming what other data have already told us: global poverty and hunger are falling, and on average, humanity is doing far better than it ever has. In some places, the improvement has been stunning. Consider South Korea, which has soared from the bottom tenth of international height rankings to the top third for both men and women.

But the anemic growth of average heights in the United States, relative to other rich countries, may offer another sign of stagnating health and lost potential. In the 2016 Hunger Report, we explained how poverty, hunger, and poor nutrition drag down a country’s health and well-being. We argued that this is happening in the United States, costing the national economy more than $160 billion in additional health-related expenses each year. Despite more healthcare spending than any other wealthy country, Americans are among the least healthy, with the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality, obesity, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Here’s what the authors of the study had to say about what height can tell us about how a country is doing:

Adult height signifies not only fetal and early childhood nutrition, which was included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but also that of adolescents (Lancet, 2014). Further, adult height is a link between these early-life experiences and NCDs, longevity, education and earnings. It can easily be measured in health surveys and can be used to investigate differences across countries and trends over time, as done in our work, as well as within-country inequalities. Therefore, height in early adulthood, which varies substantially across countries and over time, provides a measurable indicator for sustainable development, with links to health and longevity, nutrition, education and economic productivity.

A notable limitation of this 100-year dataset is the fact that it ends in 1996—four years before the MDGs were officially launched. Our 2013 Hunger Report explains the unprecedented impact of the MDGs, which represent the first time in human history that all countries of the world agreed upon a shared set of goals to markedly reduce major human ills like hunger, poverty, disease, and gender inequality in poor countries. Data since 1996 from the World Bank, United Nations, and other sources shows an even more dramatic improvement in human wellbeing. There is likely more good news that this height dataset is leaving out, especially for developing countries. A perfect example is India, which has reduced child stunting by 27 percent between 1989 and 2006.

The MDGs were limited to only developing countries, but the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which just replaced them this year, set goals for all countries, including the United States. And our standing on average height rankings offers just another reason why we need them—to push us to improve health, reduce inequality, and end hunger. 

Derek Schwabe is a research associate in Bread for the World Institute. 

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