So here\’s an interesting question

We know that people have generally been getting taller (erm, OK, the average height of those alive has been rising, not that individuals necessarily grow) over the past century or so.

I\’ve been looking around, but cannot find, a time series that tells me the average American height over that time.

I\’ve a basic working assumption which is that something changed around 1980. Ish.

Very roughly indeed, the idea that being stunted by lack of childhood nutrition was something that stopped being a (widespread) problem in the US around or just after WWII. Mebbe a little later. Could even have been the War on Poverty etc of the 60s.

Given human lifespans this doesn\’t start to feed through (sorry) into a change in the average heights of the population until the 80s and obviously it\’s a continuing process still now.

It would also probably be best to have the data broken out by race: as average heights between races are very different and, say, Hispanic immigration might have kept the population average down but not the white/black or Hispanic.

So, does anyone know of such a time series? Average heights in the US by age/race post war?

The purpose is of course terribly flawed. There\’s one statistic out there which changes significantly starting in the 1980s. What I\’m trying to ponder is whether height explains that change…..

20 thoughts on “So here\’s an interesting question”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Tim adds: Obesity.

    The other thing that has changed is Arnold Swartzenegger. In the 1980s young men started to bulk up. Which means the their BMI has gone up too.

    Although I am sure it has had less effect than the coke they drink.

  2. Don’t know about the US but we could do with some figures for the UK. It’s obvious a proportion of the so called obesity epidemic in this country is simply due to the influx of immigrants, amongst who a few – & with some ethnicities a lot more than a few – extra pounds are regarded as an asset not a liability.

  3. There’s a dramatic increase in height of Japanese people after World War 2. This is sometimes attributed to the Westernisation of the Japanese diet after World War 2 – ie more red meat. I think you are talking maybe 50 years before that being the point when pretty much everyone in Japan had enough to eat. Maybe we are talking the two generation effect that PaulB is talking about, along with the big jump in heights being delayed by the (relatively brief but severe) shortages that occurred due to WWII.

  4. I remember reading that the average American has stopped getting taller (and that’s after adjusting for short immigrants). Maybe even getting a bit shorter (though I’m less certain of that). FT magazine maybe – can’t remember.

    I like the idea that the increased weight of Americans is down not to lard but to them being finely honed muscular athletes. One of those ideas that ought to be true.

  5. Typically obesity is measured (or obesity statistics generated) using BMI.
    BMI was only designed to be a general guide, never an accurate indicator of body fat. BMI doesn’t scale correctly to body height. BMI gets very inaccurate for those 6ft.

    % of body fat is the most accurate measurement for obesity but is rarely done.

    As for the cause of obesity I recommend reading “good calories, bad calories” or watch “fathead”. (fathead clips below)

  6. The major factor for general height in a population after allowing for the obvious seems to be the mother’s childhood diet.

    Good nutrition in childhood will allow the mother’s physiology – including reproductive organs obviously – to develop fully and she’ll be able to have bigger/healthier kids who’ll grow taller.

    Few other studies around too.

    That’s how it is a two generation effect – it’s not the meat in the present Japanese diet, it was the women getting adequate nutrition post war.

    I think the original study was done comparing Holland and America.

  7. I thought the split went back further than the 1980’s. I’ve read somewhere (God only knows where now) that there was a distinctive height difference between British Tommies and their Canadian and American counterparts during WW1. Likewise the Officer class, being largely drawn from the Upper and Middle Classes were also taller than those from the ranks.

    Not saying that diet is 100% responsible for this (conscription in the UK v’s all volunteer armies may explain the Brit / Yank height difference) but it’s worth considering.

  8. Can’t find the source, but I read somewhere that now that everyone in the West has a superabundance of food and has had for 60 years, natural genetic factors have been allowed full rein, and thus northern Europeans are now on average taller than Americans (whereas of course prior to that the reverse was the case.) I do know that the tallest guy I’ve ever met is Dutch (6′ 9 1/2″).

  9. I met a Chinese-American family back in 1978. Their daughter (8) had been brought up in Taiwan. Their son (6) was notably bigger/taller than her, brought up more in USA. Difference: milk

  10. Don’t forget us troublesome oldies. There are more and more of us.
    We mostly all lose height as we age.
    I’ve lost about 2 inches in my 77 years of existance – from 6ft 2 inches to 6 foot tall.
    Sorry about that.

  11. Bah!
    There are lots of factors, which include diet during pregnancy, diet in childhood, genetic drift (taller, bigger men are more likely to be successful in general life and in producing children), but the largest factor in the increase in UK average height since WWII is race – Africans (not “blacks” since Tamils are both darker and shorter) are taller than “whites” (mostly a scruffy pinkish colour) and Africans are a larger %age of the UK population now than 50 years ago.
    This is a simple factual observation.

  12. Seems unlikely john77 but just how many ‘africans’ are there now in the UK?
    When I left in the 60s there were very few pigmented people there in spite of the latest propaganda saying otherwise.
    When I was at school in Cardiff ( 1950s) the ones who did well at mathematics were noticeably taller – odd that.

  13. I’m sure you’re on to this already- but much reporting on increased obesity deduces obesity from the BMI. The BMI assumes that the weight of a three dimensional body is related to the square of their height. Of course this is only true for two dimensional bodies. The BMI is approximately true for the range of heights originally considered. Bear in mind that this was introduced at a time where tables were needed to find the square of a number, and not all tables contained values for cubes, it was a reasonable first approximation.
    Since the calculation of the cube of the hight is now as easy as any other power it is high time the thing was brought into line with three dimensional human beings.

  14. So Much For Subtlety

    john malpas – “Seems unlikely john77 but just how many ‘africans’ are there now in the UK? When I left in the 60s there were very few pigmented people there in spite of the latest propaganda saying otherwise.”

    One in six primary school children and one in eight high school students now come from a non-English speaking household. That is, not counting Jamaicans or third generation Indians. I think there are a few more pigmented people now than there were in the 1960s.

    Britain is slowly vanishing and becoming some other country. Naturally the heights will change. Everything else will too.

  15. And further to Pat’s comment, the BMI was worked out using soldiers as the model, therefore a very limited subset of the population. And no one (to my knowledge) has done an extensive scientific study to update the BMI calculation, or even work out if it’s true.

    When you get children being told they’re obese when in they obviously aren’t then you know that anyone using the BMI doesn’t understand it and is just using for their own purposes.

  16. I agree that BMI is a pretty rough measure, but I doubt that rising obesity is just an illusion. It seems to me that there are a lot more fat people than there used to be in swimming pools. I suppose they might just be getting out more…

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