Honey, I Shrunk The Nation! New Study Shows Americans Are Getting Shorter

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Average heights of Americans have stopped increasing, with men peaking in 1996 and women way back in 1988. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Average heights of Americans have stopped increasing, with men peaking in 1996 and women way back in 1988. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Americans are shrinking -- not as individuals, but as a population. In 1914, American men were the third-tallest group in the world, and American women ranked fourth. Today they rank 37th and 42nd respectively. And the average heights have stopped increasing, with men peaking in 1996 and women way back in 1988.

Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Professor Majid Ezzati at the Imperial College in London about his new study examining height data from around the world spanning 1914 to 2014.

Interview Highlights: Majid Ezzati

On main takeaways from the study:

“A couple of things was where the largest gains have happened. These are places largely in Asia and southern and central Europe. And then the other thing is actually who is starting to fall behind. That happens both in the high-income world, so the Untied States is actually falling behind compared to its counterparts, and unfortunately in some of the poorest parts of the world things have either stopped growing or actually in some cases it's actually reversing for the past few decades.”

On why the U.S. height has dropped over the last couple of decades:

“You can think about it this way: There was time a century ago where the U.S was the land of plenty, and where there wasn't enough food elsewhere in the world there was a lot of food in the U.S. As time has passed, nutrition has become better elsewhere and in the U.S. two things have happened. One, there is still a lot of calories being consumed. The U.S. has become more obese than any other wealthy country. These are not really high quality calories.”

“The other thing that people have identified is that nutrition in the U.S. is a much more unequal situation. There are people that are eating well and there are people who are actually eating, maybe a lot of calories, but low quality calories, and that inequality is actually contributing to putting down the average.”

On how genetic factors and immigration play a role:

“Absolutely. And one of the positive things about the U.S. is that it has traditionally been quite open to immigrants, and so are other countries that are doing well. So Netherlands has had a lot of immigrants from Indonesia and from other parts of the world, maybe not as much as the U.S., and they have entirely outperformed perhaps a little bit more similar Australia has a larger share of immigrants in its population and it's outperforming the U.S."

"Other researchers have looked at people who are, let's say, originally from the U.S. or ethnically white, and they have found the same thing about those groups. It's really something that's happening in the country than coming in the country.”

On how the Dutch have seen so much change in the last 70 years:

“There are a couple of explanations. One is amenable to policy, so this is again about quality of nutrition, but nutrition broadly, so what people eat but also the care that children get early in life and the pregnancy care. When you take all of this into account, you want a system that actually takes care of people from preconception to pregnancy, high quality health care, good parental leave, and good nutrition, and in the case of the Netherlands many of these have come together. Diets that are rich in dairy, that is actually quite good for growing, and perhaps a more equal society until now that has led to that.”

On public health issues that might be driving the lack of growth:

“People in the case of Africa have been a population whose nutrition is increasingly influenced by changes in environment and policy. Africa went through long periods of structural adjustment. These were the periods that services were being cut and services for the poorest were being cut, and again we're starting to see the implications of these, years and decades later.”

On the big takeaway from the study and how people become taller:

“Good social services, good welfare, good health care, good nutrition, good public health.”


Majid Ezzati, chair in global environmental health, School of Public Health, Imperial College, London. The school tweets @Imperial_IGHI.

This segment aired on July 26, 2016.


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