Why is everyone else getting taller?

A paper (free full text) in this month’s Social Science Quarterly points out an interesting but not entirely unexpected phenomenon: people in the rest of the world are growing taller than those of us in the United States.

It seems remarkable that this could happen because over the past couple of centuries people in the United States were significantly taller than their European counterparts. Suddenly, starting in the 1950s, people in the US quit growing. They didn’t get shorter; they simply quit growing larger. For years, just as there has been an improvement in longevity in this country, there has been an ever increasing increase in average height. Then, in about 1950 it stopped. People born in the years 1955-1974 for the first time were no taller than those born the years previous to that. People born in the rest of the Western world during those years raced past us and now surpass in average height those Americans born between 1955 and 1974.

What has happened? Why the steady gains in stature for two centuries, then a reversal? Why does the rest of the world continue to grow?

Good questions all. The answers, I suppose, depend upon whom you ask.

If you ask the researchers that wrote this paper, you’ll get one answer. If you ask me, you’ll get another.

The people who wrote the paper are sociologists. I’m a physician grounded in biochemistry and physiology. Let’s see how our answers differ.

First, though, just to give you an idea so that you can start thinking ahead…remember back when you were in school and all the people you knew were separating out into their different majors. Some went into engineering, others into science, others went into history, literature or the arts, and some went into sociology. Remember the ones who went into sociology? Well, those are the people who became sociologists, so that explains a lot.

After going through all the statistics to show that there really is a growing discrepancy between the average heights of Americans and the average heights of Europeans – which I have no problem accepting – the authors speculate on the cause of this difference.

They first make a nod toward nutrition:

Why U.S. heights declined in relative terms remains a conundrum, a topic for future research, but even at this stage of our knowledge we can conjecture that there are differences in the diet of U.S. and European children that could affect human growth. For example, U.S. children consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density, and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.

Then they launch into what I consider lunacy:

Moreover, consideration of the differences in the socioeconomic institutions of Europe and the United States might help in at least beginning to resolve this paradox. Without claiming to propose a comprehensive answer to this quandary, we propose the hypothesis that there are several crucial differences between the western and northern European welfare states and the more market-oriented economy of the United States that might well shed further insights into this paradox. This includes greater socioeconomic inequality and more extensive poverty in the United States. European welfare states provide a more comprehensive social safety net, including universal health-care coverage, while the share of those who have no health insurance in the United States is about 15 percent of the population. Is it possible that the western European welfare states are able to provide better healthcare to children and youth than the more market-oriented U.S. one? Or is there something about the quality of healthcare that is responsible for these results?

Jesus wept.

It should be real easy to determine whether the above sociological jibberish holds any merit: simply compare wealthy Americans (all of whom presumably have decent healthcare) to wealthy Europeans and poor Americans (who presumably have bad healthcare) to poor Europeans (who supposedly have the same health care as the wealthy). If the wealthy Americans and Europeans are the same height and the poor Americans are shorter than the poor Europeans, then we could maybe make a case for a difference in health care. If both rich and poor Europeans are taller than their American counterparts, then it’s tough to make a case for a healthcare difference causing the problem.

The authors do look at this. And what do they find?

The lagging U.S. height performance is not caused by a long left tail in the height distribution. Heights are normally distributed and the whole U.S. height distribution is shifted to the left. In other words, rich Americans are shorter than rich western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor western Europeans.

Case closed. Or as Samuel Johnson would have said, “There’s an end on’t.” It ain’t a difference in the healthcare system.

So, what is it?

I would say it is the massive amounts of soft drinks that American kids drink compared to their European counterparts. That huge upswing in soft drink consumption in the U.S. started post WWII and has increased since.

How would soft drinks make us shorter?

It’s a little complex, but let’s tackle the physiology.

First, puberty and growth are stimulated by sex hormones and IGF-1 (insulin-like Growth Factor). These hormones are in two forms: the free form and the bound form. The free form is when the hormone is off doing its hormone-y thing. The bound form is when the hormone is bound to its binding globulin. Both hormones circulate in the blood in both ways: bound and free. When you get a blood test, it measures the total, i.e., both free and bound. If you want to see what the actual active hormone is doing, you’ve got to get a Free Testosterone or a Free IGf-1.

The binding globulins for these hormones are made in the liver. If the liver cranks out a lot of binding globulin, then a lot of the hormone will be bound and not be active. If the liver does the opposite and produces little binding hormone, then the amount of hormone bound will be less and there will be more active hormone out doing its thing.

Elevated levels of insulin drive the liver to make LESS binding globulin, which means that there will be MORE of the free and, therefore, active hormone available. More IGF-1 leads to acne, nearsightedness, and an early growth spurt. More free sex hormone leads to an earlier puberty and closure of the growth plates. (the growth plates are at the ends of the bones, and when the growth plates close, the bone quits growing in length. When long bones stop growing, you stop getting taller.)

What make the levels of insulin go up? We all know the answer: carbs. Especially refined carbs. Especially sugar. Even worse is fructose because fructose adversely affects the liver without raising insulin levels.

What are soft drinks? Sugar water. Sugar water now made with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Both sugar and HFCS contain glucose which raises insulin and fructose which makes the insulin even more harmful to the liver and enhances the liver’s insulin resistance.

An insulin resistant liver makes less binding globulin, less binding globulin allows more free hormone, more free hormone hastens puberty and stops growth. Voila! A much more sensible explanation than that concocted by our sociologist friends in the above paper. And one grounded in science, not a we-should-have-socialized-medicine twisting of the facts.

There is another viewpoint on this. When I read this paper, I emailed by bud Loren Cordain to see what he thought of it. He has a different theory than I do on the actual physiological cause, but, as he sees it, the underlying problem is the same.

Here is an excerpt from his email to me (reproduced with his permission):

After attending the Harvard conference on milk drinking & sitting through the Brit’s presentation of a famous longitudinal trial on milk drinking and stature conducted in the 1930’s and resurrected in the present with still living members, my feelings are that increased milk consumption probably is the most important dietary determinant of adult stature. The two underlying mechanisms: BTC in milk binds human luminal gut EGF-R and ends up in circulation and thereby binds 3 of the 6 EGF-R dimers in chondrocytes, thereby promoting skeletal growth during development; secondly the (protein + lactose) in milk facilitates insulin resistance which increases IGF-1 and further adds to milk’s growth promotional effects during adolescence. The probable reason Europeans are surpassing Americans in stature is because they continue to have high milk consumption while US teens have replaced milk with soft drinks. BTC + lactose is more powerful than sucrose alone in promoting increased stature.

I like my rationale better, but we are both in agreement that the root cause of the decrease in stature is the increased consumption of soft drinks during the childhood and teenage years.

They’re poison. Don’t let your kids drink them.

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40 thoughts on “Why is everyone else getting taller?

  1. I agree that soft drinks are a likely contributing factor, but I suspect there is much more to it than that :

    after all, aren’t the Dutch youth leading the height race, as well as increasing their consumption of soft drinks? Perhaps other areas of their diet help to compensate for this.

    Hi Scott–

    One of my favorite quotes is from one of my favorite curmudgeons H.L Mencken who said:

    For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

    This is a complex problem, and there probably is more than just the soft drink consumption to blame. But I think soft drink consumption has played a major role, especially since the sweetener has been changed to HFCS. Soft drinks in other countries are typically less sweet than those in the U.S. and are more often than not sweetened with sugar. Why? Because the price of sugar is kept artificially high in the U.S. thanks to the lobbying efforts of Big Sugar, whereas in the rest of the world, sugar can be had for much, much less, so other countries use it instead of HFCS.
    Cheers–

    MRE

  2. It sounds like the sociologists writing that paper are preparing the ground for (Or trying to ride the coat-tails of) Michael Moore’s next ‘documentary’ about how the healthcare system in communist Cuba is better than ours.

    I’m a firm believer that the US healthcare system has serious problems, and I’m no friend of insurance companies, but I think all the socialist/communist ‘spin’ will HINDER change more than help it along.

    Hi Bob–

    You and me both!

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  3. I don’t quite understand your friend’s explanation…his response would lead me to believe that drinking milk would have the same effect as drinking soda or even more pronounced since “BTC + lactose is more powerful than sucrose alone in promoting increased stature (prematurely).” Therefore Europeans should be just as short or even shorter. ???

    That’s why I like my explanation better.

    You can check out the newsletter on his website and read his writings on milk to maybe better understand where he’s coming from. 

    Cheers–

    MRE

  4. Dr. Mike, another excellent post. That’s one reason I would never invest in the likes of Coca Cola Co. – now if Warren Buffett would only get the message…..

    BTW: After you recently mentioned the search function that is available on your website I gave it a try. It is an excellent resource and will no doubt answer many questions that I would otherwise be emailing you about; so thanks for pointing that out. I will be using it a lot.

    BTW2: Don’t let this go to your head, but I think you should be nominated to be the next Surgeon General of the U.S., even though you wouldn’t have the time to tackle the rest of those lingering boar’s nests we have been reading about (and your publisher would probably not be very happy either, at least for awhile). But why don’t we have a little polling done to see how many here would “vote” for you in that position?

    Best,
    W

    Hi Wil–

    I can’t think of anything I would rather NOT do than be the Surgeon General.  If for no other reason than I would become – horror of horrors – a government employee.  Thanks for the thought, though.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  5. Or could the U.S. averages being affected by the high percentages of Mexican-Americans living here who are statistically shorter?

    Nope, that was corrected for in the study.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  6. Not sure what the European dairy consumptions statistics show, but my observation over the last couple of decades has been that European kids do not drink milk as a beverage as much as American kids do, soda consumption aside. They use milk for cooking, cold cereals, and consume lots more yogurt, cheese, butter, etc., but I haven’t observed much use of milk as a beverage, except in hot cocoa and coffee.

    When I was 18 (in 1980), I participated in an exchange program with a family in Spain. They were under the impression that American kids drink lots of milk (I don’t remember what they drank). The Spanish dad worked at an agriculture college so he brought home fresh milk, they boiled the heck out of it, and were very surprised when I barely touched it (I did the best I could to be polite about it). My own real family did drink milk (skimmed, unfortunately), but this boiled milk was awful to me. For whatever reason, the Spanish exchange family did not get conventionally processed milk from the grocery store for me. I don’t remember them drinking it either. I think it was obtained just for me.

    I have 2 Norwegian nephews, ages 14 & 11. On average I see them every other year either here at my home in the US, in their Norwegian home, or on a multi-family vacation somewhere in Europe. I hardly ever see them drink milk, though they eat butter, cheese and yogurt daily. They don’t drink soda, but they do drink what seems to be a popular and typical Norwegian concoction of a bit of fruit juice concentrate mixed into water, i.e., basically fruit-flavored sugar water. I think the call it sof or saf or something like that.

    We have also visited in lots of European homes in the last decade and I see butter, yogurt, and cheese consumed, but very little milk as a beverage, except in half hot coffee/half hot milk in the morning, and that is usually by the parents. The children might have milk in homemade hot cocoa for breakfast or perhaps in some cold cereal, but usually it is yogurt, cheese, or meat for breakfast.

    Also, the Europeans I have observed are more likely to purchase much smaller quantities of milk, such as UHT milk in the shelf-stable cartons (nasty stuff), or in 1 liter containers if it is cold milk from the dairy case. I don’t think I have ever seen a 4 liter container of milk in Europe (comparable to the American gallon of milk). Even a 2 liter carton isn’t the typical size. Americans seem to buy a lot more fluid milk.

    So there may be lots of statistical data on dairy consumption in Europe that matches my observations (yogurt, cheese, & butter), but I wonder about the milk consumption as a beverage. Other forms of dairy would seem to be more involved than fluid milk.

    Then again, most of my observations would lead me to believe that the world is flat :-).

    Cheers,
    Anna

    Hi Anna–

    Having spent a fair amount of time in Europe, my observations have been the same as yours.  That’s why I like my theory better than Loren’s.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  7. No mention of genetics? Since the 1970’s we’ve had many Asian and Latino immigrants. These new comers do not tend to be very tall. (But they do tend to be healthy and able-bodied) If they are included in the formula, then the researcher’s conclusions are way off. It could be genetic diversity vs genetic homogeniety that is driving EU’s height to increase.

    Hi J–

    There was indeed a discussion of genetics that you can peruse if you pull down the full text of the article.  The authors looked at the very things you wrote about and corrected for them.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  8. When I was a teen I ate tons of carbs, and became very nearsighted. How exactly does insulin cause nearsightedness?

    Is the damage permanent?

    Thanks

    Hi Freddy–

    That’s the subject of a post all its own.  It’s up in the air as to whether it’s permanent; most think it is.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  9. I agree with your soft drink hypothesis and, in fact, left a comment on Econlog yesterday to that effect. I placed my emphasis, however, on caffeine (as in Coca Cola) as the culprit, rather than high fructose sugar. My observation is that prior to the 1960’s, most American parents limited severely their children’s intake of caffeine. An additional factor, which could be equally responsible, is lack of sleep. Anecdotally, U.S. teenagers are described as chronically sleep-deprived, and lack of sufficient sleep could contribute to suppressing growth in height.

    Hi Davidson–

    My mother would agree with you.  She (and my grandmother) always told me that caffeinated drinks would ‘stunt’ my growth.  But this admonition was always applied to coffee and tea.  I loved sweetened tea, but would have it denied me.  I was told: No coffee or tea until you are twenty.

    Other than my mother, I’ve never read that caffeine is a growth ‘stunter,’ so I can’t comment.  I do think that sleep-deprivation can lead to lack of growth.  I don’t know the sleep situation amongst European kids, however, so I can’t compare.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  10. As always with your blog, this is extremely interesting and well-explained. But I think the tone of your comments about the paper authors was needlessly offensive. (I’m not a sociologist by the way). They made an observation about height distribution, and proposed a socio-economic reason for it. The excerpts you provide look scientific enough to me – a tentative hypothesis without any sweeping statements. Of course diet should be the primary thing to focus on, but maybe neither of them even knows much about the dietary debates – low-carb, need for good-quality fat, dangers of HFCS etc. That’s a loss for their paper, but not a reason for a personal attack. (Also your wealthy-American argument doesn’t seem bulletproof to me – one could turn it on diet, arguing that wealthy Americans should have a better diet (as well as health care) to level them out with Europeans, but that is not the case so diet is not the culprit…). In closing though – thanks for a terrific blog!

    Hi Paul–

    I don’t think my tone was offensive. I think you must have known some future sociologists that you didn’t think much of. I was careful to be non-judgmental in what I wrote. If you read carefully, you will see that I wrote the following:

    First, though, just to give you an idea so that you can start thinking ahead…remember back when you were in school and all the people you knew were separating out into their different majors. Some went into engineering, others into science, others went into history, literature or the arts, and some went into sociology. Remember the ones who went into sociology? Well, those are the people who became sociologists, so that explains a lot.

    If all the people you knew who went into sociology were bright, energetic, wonderful people, you wouldn’t have been offended by my remarks.

    My argument about the wealthy Americans verses Europeans was that it WAS NOT health care that made the difference.  I would argue that health care in the U.S. (for the wealthy, at least) is the best there is.  That’s why wealthy people from all over the world fly here to get treated.  If our health care is the same or even better than theirs, yet they are taller, then it can’t be the fault of the health care system that we’re shorter.  I then argued that diet was probably more likely the culprit, since by their own data it couldn’t be a difference in the healthcare systems.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  11. Cordain said:

    “BTC + lactose is more powerful than sucrose alone in promoting increased stature.”

    The problem with this statement is that Americans STOPPED growing at the time they started ingesting more sucrose. And they’ve kept on not growing, apparently. So it appears that “sucrose alone” doesn’t cause higher stature at all, quite the opposite, as you surmise.

    Cordain’s theory that increased stature is caused by insulin and insulin resistance increasing IGF-1 (even if that’s just a secondary mechanism) should mean that the same effect would be seen in American kids consuming sucrose/HFCS/white bread and fries… even if to a lesser degree than in European kids drinking milk (and the idea that milk should cause more insulin resistance than the diet of the typical American teenager is slightly absurd in my opinion, though I’m not sure if that’s what he means).

    I’m sure milk drinking is positively correlated with stature… just look at the Masai. But Cordain is trying to make this into a “bad” thing. Couldn’t it simply be due to all the nutrients found in (whole) milk? Fat-soluble vitamins, calcium, plenty of other minerals, high-quality proteins, saturated fats, CLA etc. Why shouldn’t drinking this promote growth?

    Hi Magz–

    As I wrote earlier, I’m not as wild about his hypothesis as I am my own.  You make some excellent points.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  12. The obvious solution is to throw money at the problem. People really take more responsibility for everything in their lives if you give them money. They eat more responsibily, drink more responsibly, drive more responsibly, study more, etc., etc.

    I certainly works in my case.  Throw some my way and I’ll prove it.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  13. I’m not trying to argue about whether softdrinks limit height.

    But, I wonder if you have issues with soft drinks in general or just corn syrup? What if it is sweetened with Splenda, Aspertame, or good ‘ol fashioned sugar cane?

    Many people say that all carbonated beverages are bad. I often read anti-diet pop claims on many diet websites. But before giving it up all together, I’d like to know what exactly is bad about them and whether it applies to just a certain category of these drinks. If the only health concern is the way it is sweetened then the there is no reason to avoid all soft drinks.

    Hi Daron–

    I don’t have much of a problem with Splenda, but I’m not a big fan of aspartame.  Pure cane sugar is sucrose, which is half glucose and half fructose.  So, anyone drinking a soda made with sugar are getting plenty of fructose.

    On the whole, I think soft drinks should be avoided.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  14. Hi Dr. Mike:

    I’ve been following a low carb WOL since 3/03, Atkins first then PP, now adding in IF since 1/07. Recently I’ve also been exploring information in the Weston Price foundation’s website, and reading Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

    I’m not a scientist; I’m a soon-to-be lawyer. Nevertheless, I’m interested in some of the implications in Price’s book—particularly relevant to this discussion, his observations about dietary influence during gestation and growth, and even on the mother-to-be’s egg production and egg health. I wonder if you’re familiar with this book?

    On a layperson’s reading, through low carb “glasses”, one seemingly apparent implication is that health, stature, physical development, and possibly even mental/emotional development, all benefit from a natural/traditional diet containing liberal amounts of naturally-occurring (especially saturated) fats and, as Price puts it, the co-factors contained therein.

    IMO, this would jive with your and previous posters’ experiences and knowledge of typical European diets, as yogurt and cheeses and butter are rich sources of those fats. However, here in the U.S. we not only guzzle soda and milk (and “enjoy” the effects therefrom, as you discussed above), but often simultaneously go out of our way to AVOID those yummy, nutritious fats (mmm… fat…).

    Although it makes my low-carb, gluten sensitive skin crawl, Price also seemed to correlate a better physical/mental health with traditional (read: old-fashioned) methods of preparing grains for consumption. These methods tended to preserve Vitamin E in wheat, for example, which he posited as influential on healthy growth and development as well. Again, what do we eat here? You name it, it can be processed. And we LIKE it that way. Lol

    I’ve enjoyed discovering your blog—reading it is my favorite study break du jour. Glad you’re finding balance between posting and responding to comments! KUTGW!

    Hi Sarah–

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  15. Remember back when you were in school and all the people you knew were separating out into their different majors. Some went into sociology, others into engineering, others went into history, literature or the arts, and some went into medicine. Remember those pre-med students? Well, those are the people who became doctors, so that explains a lot.

    I’m no more of a sociologist than Paul is, and I firmly believe you’re a bright, wonderful, energetic person.

    The information you provide is fascinating and helpful, and I often recommend your blog to others.

    Hey Blaise–

    That only works with sociologists.  When I went back to my high school reunion, it spread like wildfire that I had become a doctor and my classmates were stunned.  “Did you hear about Eades?  Geez, can you believe that?  Who would’ve imagined.  Him.  Unbelievable.  I didn’t figure he could get into college, much less medical school.”

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  16. Dr. MRE

    I’m going with your idea that fructose is the numero uno culprit. As kids, my brothers and I drank a boatload of whole milk and another boatload of Kool Aid sweetened with large quantities of sugar. We all have good eyesight; we didn’t have any major acne problems; and at a smidge under 6′-3″ I’m only the third tallest among the four of us.

    As for the sociology majors, I’m with you on that one too. I can’t imagine why one would spend good money and four years of time and effort for a college degree in … sociology?
    Inexplicable. Someone should study those poor bozos to look for an answer to that mystery.

    Just so that everyone else can be in on the joke, this is James, my golfing buddy and good friend that I just played 54 holes with in two days in Texas a couple of weeks ago.  James was a sociology major in college, a happenstance that about which I’ve given him much grief.  But, he wasn’t the inspiration for this post, just a victim.  I’m sure, however, that anyone who knew him in high school had him pegged as a sociology major from the get go.  He’s undergone much improvement, spiritual and intellectual growth since I got a hold of him 10 years or so ago.  A few more years under my tutelage and he should be almost normal.

  17. Paul Krugman wrote his NYT op-ed on this topic last week and, given his background, had a socio-economic perspective. Though you might be coming at it from a different political perspective, it was be an interesting read… See Thursday, June 14, 2007 “America Comes Up Short”

    Hi Rick–

    I’ll track it down and give it a read. 

    Thanks–

    MRE 

  18. Hi Mike,

    I agree with you about the sociological gibberish. Sociologists are under the illusion that social problems are cured by social policy. It’s their job, looking down on us from their Olympean heights, to determine the nature of that policy, and then it becomes Hilary Clinton’s job to gain enough political power to impose that policy. But, of course, social problems are not cured by social policy , which can never do better that create sero sum solutions. Social problems are solved by social movements, something about which Hilary Clinton and her academic confreres care very little.

    Your solution about not drinking soda works for me, at least anecdotally. Somehow, my son managed to reach six feet, a remarkable achievement given that I’m 5’8″ and his mother is 5’2″. He’s also skinny as the proverbial rail. When he was about thirteen, he started showing a little pot belly, and I told him if he wanted to get rid of that he should cut out soda from his life. Strange to say, he listened to his father and never touched another can of full sugar soda again. I’ve always attributed his height to cutting out soda, and you’ve corroborated me.

    By the way, the best definition of a sociologist is this one. If you give a sociologist $300,000 dollars for a three year grant, at the end of that time, he’ll be able to tell you where the local whorehouse is.

    All the best,

    Chuck Berezin

    Hi Chuck–

    Good to hear from you.  And I’m glad to hear that we’re on the same page at least where sociologists are concerned.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  19. I’ve been shocked during recent visits to Holland to see the amounts of sugary stuff being consumed. And, the amounts of additive and preservative, prepackaged junk in the supermarkets. My husband was born and raised in Holland. He is 6’1″, and was born in 1936, so spent a lot of his childhood during the deprived war years, where they were lucky to get a few potatoes or turnips to eat.

    My beverage of choice at home is unsweetened iced tea. I am able to order it in restaurants anywhere here in the States, but NOWHERE in Europe. It’s all pre-sweetened. That’s why I’ve had to do a lot of gin drinking there. Heh heh.

    It’s my theory that the Dutch only SEEM taller because their hair is standing on end, due to the incredibly strong coffee.

    Question: why is it better to be taller? Larger animals have not done terribly well in the history of the earth. Hunter-gatherers are usually small and wiry, are they not? When I think of family members and friends who have lived into their 90’s (and an aunt who died last month at 100), they’ve all been on the small and thin side. Is there some actual benefit in being bigger? My impression is that it’s quite otherwise.

    Hi Dorothy–

    Our ancient hunter/gatherer ancestors were actually fairly large.  When the agricultural ‘revolution’ came along, people’s heights began to decrease due to inferior nutrition.  It’s only been in the last couple of decades that we’ve once again approximated the size of our predecessors of 50,000 years ago.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  20. Dr. MRE,

    Does height really matter? Is it a very good indicator of overall health and/or longevity?

    -Z

    Hi Zen–

    A number of studies have shown that both economic well being and longevity are a function of height.  Plus, it’s a marker for good nutrition.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  21. Another thing I’ve noticed (at least here in Scandinavia and France as well) is that men’s hands seem to be getting smaller. Young men today (20s) often seem to have small hands compared to their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation, even if they’re taller. It’s almost as if we’ve undergone a super-fast adaption to an environment in which male hands are used mainly for keyboard punching and text messaging.

    Any theories about this? Could environmental xenestrogens play a role?

    Hi Magz–

    I haven’t a clue.  This is the first time I’ve heard of it or even thought about it.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  22. I love your blog! Thanks so much for sharing it!

    I just read about a possible new diabetes drug which will supposedly prevent diabetes:

    http://www.diabetesincontrol.com/results.php?storyarticle=4888

    The rationale that is put forth for why to create such a drug was this:

    “[… a] gene controls a lipid-binding protein called aP2 that sticks to fats in the blood and escorts them to different places in the body where they can cause trouble.”

    “When people eat fatty foods, these aP2 proteins trigger a chain of inflammatory responses, he said. They can reduce sensitivity to the sugar-lowering effects of the hormone insulin — raising the risk of diabetes — and encourage plaque formation in arteries — raising the risk of heart attack.”

    “Then comes the question, ‘Since we cannot change the genes of people, can we do this trick with a chemical?'”

    I was wondering what your thoughts might be about this line of reasoning. Everything I’ve learned from you and other low carb doctors is that fats alone aren’t bad, fats in that presence of carbohydrate often are.
    So we don’t need a drug to deal with the inflammatory effects of fat alone, we need to recognize that it is fat in the presence of carbohydrate which causes the problem, would that be correct?

    Hi Karen–

    That would be correct.  I read the article you linked and I take exception to the statement that follows:

    “We know this works exactly the same way in humans and we know this compound can do what genetics does. This is very encouraging,” he said.

    I beg to differ.  We don’t ‘know’ that it works exactly the same in humans. 

    The idea of the inflammatory basis of fat is interesting.  I plan a post on it soon.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  23. Just a quick thought. I agree that Sociology is a suspect discipline these days ( or any days ) but Sociobiology is an absolutely fascinating and very promising field, IMNSHO.

    John

    Agreed.

    MRE 

  24. I have some alternate culprits…
    1- Temperature. American air conditioning technology is number one in the world. It certainly beats any AC available in Europe. The children needlessly exposed to arctic summers have had their growth stunted due to an abbreviated growing season. It’s the reverse of hot house flowers.

    2- Temperature, redux. Sure, Americans drink a lot of coke. But it’s not the coke. It’s what’s in the coke. Ice. Drinking these frosty beverages (I saw many gourmet granitas in Italy, but no cheap slushies) has chilled the metabolisms of America’s youth, resulting in a shorter and ever widening population.

    3- Obesity. Since we’re so much fatter, gravity weighs harder on our youth than on European youth. We could catch up if only Europeans would embrace Supersizing.

    4- The Government. Clearly, it’s not interested in having a tall population, otherwise we’d be a nation of Yao Mings. I cannot believe that this isn’t a spending priority.

    5- Pharmaceutical companies. Clearly, our private sector has missed an opportunity. Who wouldn’t put their kids on Talliva, the drug that guarantees Euro style height.

    6- Michael Moore. Everything is his fault anyway.

    7- The government. Actually, anything that isn’t MM’s fault is the government. And they’re so backwards, they get mentioned twice.

    8- Movies, TV, rap music, rock music and video games. Anything wrong with American kids since the 70’s could be laid at the feet of the entertainment industry. All kidding aside, I bet you could make an argument about sedentary kids and growth hormone.

    9- Gas prices. On my recent trip to Italy, I marveled at my Italian friend about the low gas prices. I think it was, after currency conversion, about 10-15% cheaper than what we pay in VA. My friend reminded me that they buy liters, not gallons. If you think a $3 gallon of gas is walking incentive enough, try a $10 gallon on.

    10- Minivans. I saw maybe three in Europe. So, kids ride in smaller cars (when they ride at all) with crappy AC (when they have AC at all) with a smaller coke (if they drink it) that has no ice.

    11- Trickle Down Economics. Without real charity, our underclasses are starved of nutrients and health care while our rich people are weighed down by their money. Neither class grows to it’s full potential.

    I crack me up.

    I have the real answer, all kidding aside. It’s posture. If we have a real crisis in the US, it’s a posture problem. Too many 6’2″ men are slumped over badly designed desks on bad chairs, with junky monitors, causing the development of lordosis and kyphosis and robbing them of crucial inches in the height war with goofy Europe. Meanwhile, those crafty Europeans, with their socialistic tendencies, give their office drones ergonomic chairs, adjustable desks and workable monitor stands, allowing them to stand to their full glory. Sadly, our current government doesn’t even believe in repetitive stress disorders or the science of ergonomics. So, the insanity will continue and we will lag behind europe in the crucial height race.

    PS- Really. I cannot believe that these people got this funded, much less published. Who cares? Europeans have some inches on us. Big deal. We have privatized health care, a minimal safety net, the best military, the biggest trade deficit, etc, etc. We’re number one (in everything but height. And life expectancy. And education. And health care outcomes. And infant mortality. And poverty rates. And employment rates. etc).

    Hmmm.  Interesting commentary.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  25. I was in Holland for work about 5 years ago and was surprised to note that the Dutch drink milk with nearly every meal. It’s their beverage of choice. I don’t know if this has any correlation with them being the tallest people.

    Ger

  26. “Jesus wept” indeed. On the heels of reading your post yesterday, I ran across Jane Brody’s column in the paper entitled “Obesity Begins at Home.” Among her suggestions for how to feed your children more healthily is this:

    “Frozen fruit ices, which have no fat, are another good choice in hot weather.I worry far less about the sugar content than the amount of fat in a frozen desert.

    Drinks, too, can be a source of pointless calories. Stick to pure fruit juices, water, low-fat or nonfat milk. Avoid fruit-like beverages labled ‘drink,’ because that means most of it is sugar water, not fruit juice. And there is no justification for giving children sodas, with or without sugar.”

    So, in other words, you can give your kids all the sugar you want as long as it’s fruit. When did fruit juice become a health beverage to be drunk by the gallon? Am I the only one who remembers when fruit juice was served in a tiny glass made expressly for that purpose? No wonder kids are getting shorter.

    I’m the short-cake of my family at 5″4.” My younger brother and sister are 6’6″ and 5’11” respectively. But there are compensations. I’m the only one of us three who can travel comfortably on any size airplane in any size seat without having to stick my legs in the aisle.

    Hi Esther–

    There is very little difference between soft drinks and juice.  A few vitamins in the juice, but about the same amount of sugar.  But folks seem to think it’s okay because it’s juice.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  27. Well, my daughter drinks soda. (I know, I’m working on it.) She also drinks tea. She is 5’5″ at 12 years old. However, many in my family are tall. We have Dutch ancestry, so perhaps it’s genetics? I am 5’7″. Interestingly, I had grown two inches (from 5’5″ after I was 30 and had been put on prednisone for hives {I’ve had problems with my weight since the same time}) I have an uncle, born here in Fla who is 6’4″. I have a cousin (male) who is 6’5″. Of my close (geographic) female cousins, I am now one of the shortest. They are 5’10” and 5’11”. My grandmother is 5’0″. (?!?) In my daughter’s class, there are only three of them who are tall like this.

    My daughter has always been off the chart in size. Though her height/weight ratio was good. I think they were afraid something was wrong with her at one point. She was breastfed. Since she has started school, she has gained weight. So, we are working on that. She gets the salad shakers a lot, so I wasn’t happy to read about an experiment supposedly done with the salad dressing. =(.

  28. Oh, couple more thoughts on the missing height.

    1- It’s the metric system. And our schools. The scientists failed to convert inches to meters correctly, and short changed Americans.

    2- It’s the school system. Not enough gym. And teaching to tests doesn’t encourage students to stretch themselves properly, inhibiting not only their mental growth, but their physical as well.

    I also said, “Europeans have some inches on us.” I should have said, “Europeans have some centimeters on us.” Down with English Weights & Measures. Long Live the Metric System, a system that actually makes sense, unless it’s what’s preventing Europe from developing sufficiently cool air conditioning (once they solve this mystery, they’ll be back down to size in no time).

    Hi Max–

    You may have some argument on the metric vs English system.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  29. To Sarah (or anyone who knows): What is the IF dietary plan? I have never heard of it. Thanks.

    Hi Erik–

    Type ‘intermittent fasting’ into the search function on the front page of this blog, and you will learn everything you need to know about the IF dietary plan.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  30. On behalf of sociologists everywhere: Hey!

    Let me say first that I don’t dispute that diet and nutrition are probably more immediate causes of differences in height than social policy. The study would have been more illuminating if the authors could have included dietary factors.

    However, let me make a couple points:

    1. Social Science Quarterly is not exactly the most prestigious journal in Sociology. This story was picked up by news outlets because it’s a “fun” sound byte. Reading the article (the SSQ article, not the NYT article), left me with a number of questions as well.

    2. No one is denying that nutrition is related to height. But it would also be grossly ignorant to think that social factors don’t affect nutrition (and I don’t just mean education and income, which is what the authors controlled for). The disconnect here is that social scientists are interested in social factors, and doctors are interested in physiological factors.

    I don’t think any sane social scientist would say that social policy has a larger effect on height than nutrition. It’s just that we’re social scientists, and we’re more interested in the impact of social variables. It’s what we study. Any idiot can say, it’s obviously diet and nutrition that affect height. A doctor might be interested in specifically what kinds of diets are resulting in vertical growth. But a social scientist is curious about which social factors affect what diet people follow and why. (Which, admittedly, the authors of this study did not do a fantastic job of, but nevertheless.)

    Obviously, some synthesis of the two is needed to get a more accurate depiction of what’s causing height differences, but it’s not always easy to cross disciplinary boundaries. Therefore, social scientists do work and come to conclusions that doctors think are ridiculous, and sometimes doctors do research and make policy recommendations that social scientists find absurd because they are unrealistic or are targeting irrelevant social factors.

    3. I’m disappointed that you would hold up this study as evidence that all sociologists are stupid. There are a great many people in your field that you (and I) disagree with about nutrition, but I don’t look at doctors who say that 100g of protein a day is unhealthy and think, “Man, all doctors are stupid.”

    As a graduate student (and TA) in Sociology, I can verify firsthand that we get much of the dregs of the undergraduates. But the dregs are certainly not the people who go into PhD programs and do research like this. Nor is it only Sociology undergrads who go into sociological research. I myself have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from an Ivy League university and worked several years in the industry before joining the Sociology PhD program I’m in now.

    4. I think you are overstating the degree to which these sociologists are saying that welfare states creates tall people. They are merely suggesting it might be one of the causal factors. Like all “good” social scientists, they’ve even phrased it as a question (as you’ve quoted above):

    “Is it possible that the western European welfare states are able to provide better healthcare to children and youth than the more market-oriented U.S. one? Or is there something about the quality of healthcare that is responsible for these results?”

    They admit in their concluding paragraph that it’s just conjecture since their study is more descriptive. Their study is attempting to answer the question, what are the differences in height between Americans and Europeans over time controlling for education and income? They are not trying answer the question, what is the impact of social policy on height? If they had tried to answer that question, they would have looked at very different data.

    Their consideration of these questions is an opening point for future research and for discussion, which I am glad to see in abundance in your blog and commenters. So consider this diatribe an addition to the discussion.

    Hi syl–

    Thanks for the sociologist’s perspective.  But, just for the record, I did not write that sociologists are stupid.  I didn’t even imply it.  I carefully crafted my sentences to not be judgmental, but to allow the readers’ opinions of sociology majors to lead them to their own judgments.

    My take on the study is that the authors merely threw a bone at the idea that nutrition could be causal, then spent pages looking at all the social variables as the root cause.  Some nutritional change should be the most obvious driving factor, and only after nutrition is eliminated as a cause by intensive analysis (which it wasn’t) should other much less likely factors be considered.

    I’m glad you’ve joined the debate.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  31. My understanding, from friends that have lived abroad, that Americans eat more meat that is grain fed, loaded with drugs, etc, while Europeans eat more grass fed, more naturally raised meat.

    This could also be a contributing factor?

    Hi Cindy–

    If anything, the hormone-loaded meats and dairy products that we get in the US would make us taller.  I don’t think that’s what it is that’s making them continue to increase in height while we stay the same.

    Best–

    MRE 

  32. I’m thinking it might just simply boil down to ethnic (genetic) differences. The fact is america is rapidly become an ethnically diverse nation… and our “european americans” are not as european (genetically) as they were decades past. Even if they did control for ethnicity… it is not necessarily true that those who self-identify as caucasians to be of homogenous, european lineage.

    For example, I consider myself white, caucasian, european american etc but my grandmother is from north africa.
    And, I’m quite certain many other “european americans” are part hispanic, asian, etc.

    This is less of a factor in europe; the genetic height potential of an englishman is similar to an irishman or someone from wales etc.
    However the genetic height potential of someone of european ancestry is MUCH different than someone of pure mexican, latin american ancestry.

    Now I’m not saying nutrition or environment doesn’t play a role…

    … but do you know why why are we shorter?
    Probably because we’ve got a bigger family now, with different genes.

    Most of this was corrected for in the study.  Read the whole thing to see what I mean.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  33. Could it be that the Americans have reached the maximum potential growth as dictated by the environment and the Europeans are just catching up?

    Who knows what the maximum potential growth as dictated by the environment are?  I certainly don’t.

  34. This is purely anecdotal but I find it interesting.

    I was a late bloomer…wasn’t allowed much soda growing up (my parent’s were ahead of their time) but I was a big milk drinker. Still am though I know it’s not making me any skinnier. Anyway, while all of my male classmates were getting hairier, bigger, and stronger I was always lagging behind. My voice change came later in high school and I would say it wasn’t until my early to mid twenties that I finally filled out.

    I don’t see those people much anymore, but on the rare occasion that I do, I’m always surprised to find how small and frankly sickly looking they are. Sure there could be any number of factors affecting these people, and it’s not across the board, but interesting none the less.

    On another note, I lived in the Netherlands for a few years and I can tell you that they are a) big dairy consumers, and b) quite tall. I’m almost 6’3″ and I was barely average out there. I’m used to seeing over the tops of people’s heads, but not in that country. You could easily tell what one’s ancestry was by their stature. Typically the Turks and Moroccans who immigrated there were almost comically short compared to their Dutch countrymen.

    Nonetheless, in my ten years living in Europe, I found that sodas became more and more prevalent. Early on I noticed that when you asked for a soda in a restaurant you would get it in a very small glass, and typically it would be warm. Your choice was pretty much Coke or Diet Coke. Most people had wine or beer with their meals. Even in McDonalds the cups they gave you were half the size of American servings and you had to pay for refills. Eventually though (and honestly I didn’t even notice it while I was there) the soda servings became larger and so did the flavor choices. A few years before I left, they started putting the soda fountains in the front and refills became free at most fast food joints.

    You’ve spent some time over in Europe haven’t you Doctor? Any observations from your perspective?

    Michael

    Hi Michael–

    Yes, I’ve spent some time there.  In fact, I’m going back in a few days for three weeks.

    I’ve noticed pretty much the same thing you have: the McDonald’s-ization of Europe.  I don’t ever, ever drink soft drinks, so I haven’t really paid much attention to the evolution of the soft drink sizes there.  I will take a look at it when I’m there, however.   I do know that most of the McDonald’s food in Europe is much, much better than what they serve here.  There are all kinds of good coffee there (espresso drinks, mainly), whereas the coffee here is pretty wretched. 

    I’ll report during my upcoming trip.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  35. As a kid I ate tons of both sucrose and HFCS. Am 5’8″ but I’ve been eating eggs every day for 15 years so my eyesight, at 40, is actually improving. I’ve noticed that these days, girls seem to be entering puberty earlier and boys are doing so later than when I was a kid. What are we doing to our future generations?

  36. I seem to recall looking into this about 2 years ago when this first came out and I was able to attribute it to a the massive influx of hispanic immigrants with just a cursory glance. This is just more truth that science can be used to further a political agenda.

    The paper addresses this issue and corrects for it. 

  37. i am 20 years old,hieght is 5’6″.my ancestry is bangladesh,i often confused with my hieght,so, how can i get taller now after my puberty?please know me details to keep me free from such a mental thoughts.

    It’s pretty much impossible to gain additional height after puberty, but it does happen on occasion.  As far as making it happen, I don’t have a clue.  I would make sure I ate plenty of protein because new bone and lean tissue are primarily protein and it’s hard to grow without it.

    MRE