by Marion Nestle
May 3 2011

What’s going on with human height?

Robert Fogel, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, has a new book coming out arguing, according to an account in the New York Times,  that gains in human height constitute “the most significant development in humanity’s long history.”

Fogel and his co-authors attribute the gain in height to gains in technology:

This “technophysio evolution,” powered by advances in food production and public health, has so outpaced traditional evolution, the authors argue, that people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of  Homo sapiens as well.

Here’s the evidence:

 

But I’m confused by this.  I thought people were taller before the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago or so, and that the recent gains were due to better nutrition and sanitation measures—not to gains in technology.

I’m particularly confused because of the recent study demonstrating reductions in height among women in 54 low-income countries.  This study concludes:

Socioeconomic inequalities in height remain persistent. Height has stagnated or declined over the last decades in low- to middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, suggesting worsening nutritional and environmental circumstances during childhood.

In other words, if you want to do something about height disparities, you have to fix income disparities and provide adequate food and clean drinking water.

 

 

 

Comments

  • Robin Rodriguez, MS RD
  • May 3, 2011
  • 8:54 am

This graph is following the average height of “native born” Americans. Could this change in data have something to do with the changes in population diversity that have taken place in the past 100 years?

  • Ben
  • May 3, 2011
  • 9:17 am

Something that strikes me is the increase in height of men versus the increase in height of women. The graph is in inches but as a percentage basis it also looks like men have grown taller relative to women. What accounts for the difference? Is it socioeconomic, diet, or both? It wasn’t in the NY Times article.

Also, the article had an interesting part that it is as much or more technology than diet. In fact, I would think that our nutritional intake has gone down in recent years.

  • chuck
  • May 3, 2011
  • 9:23 am

i have often wondered why americans are so much taller than asians. i have speculated that our higher protein intake and lower goitrogen and phytate intake could have something to do with this.

  • Emily Fantaskey
  • May 3, 2011
  • 10:33 am

Robin – I had the exact same thought. Americans have changed a lot in diversity over the past few hundred years. There’s no explanation of if, or how, he accounts for this in his data.

  • Heather
  • May 3, 2011
  • 10:37 am

With a population statistic such as this, knowing the median would also be instructive. Maybe a few people are getting taller but the population as a whole isn’t.

  • grrljock
  • May 3, 2011
  • 11:37 am

See Burkhard Bilger’s 2004 story of John Komlos’ research on human height and nutrition: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/04/05/040405fa_fact

  • Cathy Richards
  • May 3, 2011
  • 1:28 pm

The new-ish WHO growth data showed that when infants were born healthy, at term, to healthy non-smoking mothers of good socioeconomic status, and received the best nutrition and regular health care, they grew longer and leaner than other children. AND that linear growth was similar between the 6 varied countries they studied, regardless of race — more similar between countries than within countries in fact.

WHO concluded that this shows good health care and good nutrition can resolve stunting caused by poor health care and poor nutrition. They didn’t say anything about technology. The nutrition care was predominant breastfeeding, no solids before 4 months, and continued breastfeeding (at least partial, with solids) to at least 12 months.

But it doesn’t show that genetic potential has changed, just that it is better reached.

  • Johannes G
  • May 3, 2011
  • 5:37 pm

An interesting point which is ignored is the time lag inherent in a measure such as average height. If today we released a new miracle food which made people grow taller, and fed it to everybody, the effect wouldn’t be realized until these people did grow taller, so in about 20 years. Therefore, we can’t simply say that the average height in 1980 means that we’ve made such large strides in 2011, because that data probably more realistically reflects the nutritional state of 1960. (Mind you: the 20 year figure is NOT scientific, simply a number which to my logic seems reasonable). This would explain a dip in height in the late 1960s, a bit more than 20 years after the Great Depression/World War 2.

Granted, this is a factor in all long-term research. I’ll be interested in seeing how a shift in diets in the 1980s until the present changes these statistics, whether for “better” or “worse.”

[...] Food Politics » What's going on with human height? [...]

  • ETaddison
  • May 4, 2011
  • 3:32 pm

It’s clearly calories in, calories out.

Obviously, duh, to grow taller, you must take in more calories than you expend. By laws of physics you cannot grow in height unless you take in more calories than you expend.

  • Doc Mudd
  • May 4, 2011
  • 3:38 pm

It is clearly because of the benefits of corporate entry to the marketplace and the resulting prosperity and wealth and freedom and liberty and all those things that make America strong. Take away corporate control of government and you will all be quickly shorter and poorer. You may disappear altogether. Save the endangered American corporation. Liberty for corporations is what makes America great for all rich Americans.

  • Doc Mudd (the real deal, don'cha love it?)
  • May 4, 2011
  • 4:33 pm

Oh, goodness gracious! An imposter attributing the above opinion to me…a poseur is at large. Oh, the inhumanity, the barbarity. I am crushed, crushed I say.

Well, actually, if you can’t come up with an original thought then help yourself to my handle. I’ll always pass a bum a 10 spot to feed the addiction.

Heh, I keep my nose out of one post and an adoring fan resorts to impersonation. A good effort, but a little dry.

  • Mitzi
  • May 4, 2011
  • 9:30 pm

Did they account for changes in racial proportions in this study? My (share-cropper’s daughter) grandmother, born in 1920, was estimated to be 6 ft tall in her youth. Her mom was the same height, born in the 1890s. Her grandparents were also tall and thin. For every person of whom I have photos, going back to people born in the 1840s, in that family, they were tall. My great-grandmother wore the same big shoe size that I do. Maybe they were exceptionally well-nourished, sanitary, non-income-disparate rural Tennessee sharecroppers with miraculously modern medical care. I doubt it. Give people enough food, sunshine, and the right genes, and they’ll be as tall or short as they can be. My female friends from India, though well fed and from wealthy families with good sanitation and medical care, are very short. Genes. If the population having kids is taller (like folks from some parts of Africa having more kids than Caucasians in the US), the kids will be, too. And our culture values tallness, so many women want to marry men the same height or taller than they are, so taller genes will work into the population based on “breeding” preferences.

  • Tom
  • May 5, 2011
  • 6:38 am

Is there any comparison of how much modern humans weigh compared to our ancestors?

  • foodie
  • May 5, 2011
  • 12:16 pm

@grrljock Thanks for sharing the link. It was really interesting.

[...] Food Politics » What's going on with hum… [...]

[...] Food Politics » What's going on with hum… [...]

[...] Food Politics » What's going on with hum… [...]

[...] Food Politics » What's going on with hum… [...]

@Tom:

“Is there any comparison of how much modern humans weigh compared to our ancestors?”

Yes.

Everyone weighed 10% less in the 1960s.

Too many carbs being sold made 66% of people grow wider, and some taller.

  • Cathy Richards
  • May 6, 2011
  • 2:05 pm

@Mitzi — the WHO growth database of children 0-5 years shows that changes in linear (height) growth of children are moderated by affluence, nutrition and access to health care (of mother prenatally and during gestation, and by child), not by race.

[...] It’s been called the “most significant development in human history” and researchers have been looking into the evolution of human height and overall growth for decades now. The findings are outlined in a new book The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700, by Robert W. Fogel, Roderick Floud, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong. The book is about to be released according to a story in the New York Times, which I saw on Food Politics. [...]

[...] It’s been called the “most significant development in human history” and researchers have been looking into the evolution of human height and overall growth for decades now. The findings are outlined in a new book The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700, by Robert W. Fogel, Roderick Floud, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong. The book is about to be released according to a story in the New York Times, which I saw on Food Politics. [...]

  • Jon
  • May 27, 2011
  • 11:03 am

I’m Oglala. Plains Indians are historically described as tall, even into Boas’ time.

But a lot of it is still a hereditary element. We still joke about how some tribes are shorter than others.

Of course, we’ve also seen major gains in height in the Chinese and Japanese; Japanese men are now on par with Western men for height.

[...] Food Politics » What's going on with human height? [...]

At 6ft 4in myself and often now feeling short when I go out I definately think that people are getting taller.

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