July 23, 2024

Nutrition Gap

The Chronicle ran a story last month about Americans and how we’re losing our height advantage over the rest of the world.

Like many human traits, height is determined by a mix of genes and environment. Experts agree that, aside from African pygmies and a few similar exceptions, most populations have about the same genetic potential for height.

That leaves environment, specifically the environment children experience from conception through adolescence. Any deficiency, from poor prenatal care to early childhood disease or malnutrition, can prevent one from reaching his or her full height potential.

“We know environment can affect heights by three, four, five inches,” said Richard H. Steckel, an Ohio State University economist who also has researched height trends.

All of this means a population’s average height is a very sensitive indicator of its most vulnerable members’ welfare.Rich countries tend to be taller because they have more resources to spend on feeding and caring for children. But wealth doesn’t guarantee a society will give its children what they need to thrive.

Indeed it doesn’t, as one can plainly see by visiting an American elementary school or McDonald’s restaurant and observing the number of overweight children per capita. Disturbing. We may not be growing taller but we’re certainly growing rounder.

John Komlos, an economic historian at the University of Munich who has spent the past quarter-century compiling data on height, is perhaps the foremost expert in the field. The New Yorker ran a similar article back in 2004 in which his comments, along with those of Steckel and Barry Bogin, were key.

In the early nineteen-seventies, when the anthropologist Barry Bogin first visited Guatemala, the country’s two main ethnic groups seemed to live on different social planes. The Ladinos, who claimed primarily Spanish ancestry, were of average height. The Maya Indians were so short that some scholars called them the pygmies of Central America: the men averaged only five feet two, the women four feet eight. The Ladinos and the Maya shared the same small country, so their differences were assumed to be genetic. But when Bogin, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, began taking measurements he soon found another cause. “There was an undeclared war going on,” he says. The Ladinos, who controlled the government, had systematically forced the Maya into poverty. Whether they lived in the city or in the countryside, the Maya had less food and medicine, and they had much higher rates of disease.

A decade and a half later, after civil war had erupted and up to a million Guatemalans had fled to the United States, Bogin took another series of measurements. This time, his subjects were Mayan refugees, between six and twelve years old, in Florida and Los Angeles. “Lo and behold, they were much taller than the Maya in Guatemala,” Bogin says. By 2000, the American Maya were four inches taller than Guatemalan Maya of the same age, and about as tall as Guatemalan Ladinos. “As far as I know, it’s the biggest increase of its kind ever measured,” Bogin says. “It shows that they weren’t genetically small. They weren’t pygmies. They were suffering.”

As America’s rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, Komlos and others say. The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they’re not alone. As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller.

Wider rather than taller – exactly. That’s no surprise: Scientists have nailed down the relationship between nutrition and health and height. That seems to be relatively well known.
To wit, the average American man is now 4 centimeters – an inch and a half – shorter than the average Dutch male, whereas 50 years ago they were shorter. Our growth has stagnated during that period while theirs has accelerated.

But what should be done about it, if anything?

The Chronicle article enumerates the following points:

  1. Benjamin E. Lauderdale of Princeton University says, “Furthermore, the European welfare states provide a more comprehensive social safety net including universal health care coverage.”
  2. In the U.S., an estimated 9 million children have no health insurance.
  3. Komlos’ most recent data indicate a small uptick in the heights of white Americans born between 1975 and 1983, suggesting the gap may be closing. But there has been no increase among blacks, underscoring inequality’s role.

In other words, their opinion is that more government resources should be dedicated to the problem.

But that is not necessarily so. The federal government already spends billions on food subsidies for the poor – as noted previously, the food stamp program’s budget alone is 40% larger than all of NASA’s combined. This fact plus the dietary research discussed above and my observation of our eating habits leads me to the conclusion that Americans, rich and poor alike, simply do not value nutrition enough to consume the right foods and/or supplements.
This is probably caused by ignorance as much or more than lack of funds. For instance, I have an advanced degree from an expensive private college but had no idea whatever about this piece of information that might have come in handy a few years back when my kids were in their formative years:

“Iodine deficiency alone can knock off ten centimeters and fifteen I.Q. points”

15 I.Q. points? Seems like an outlandish claim. But I have no basis for asserting that. American’s health education knowledge is rather pitiful; it could be true and I would have no idea.

America’s obesity problem is mostly ignorance coupled with a mindset that says consequences don’t matter. Throwing more billions at the problem through another government program won’t help. But making our students’ health class more informative certainly would.

In the final analysis, the government is not responsible for what I eat. If I choose to stunt my children’s growth by feeding them white bread, potato chips, and mac and cheese, that’s my own business and responsibility. Likewise if I decide to eat myself into a diabetic coma.

Beyond ensuring that parents and children have the facts about nutrition and exercise there is no proper role for government to take in this matter, regardless of whether Lauderdale’s claim of economic inequality as a cause is true or not.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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