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Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites

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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

 
Apparently, We’re Not Just Getting Wider.

This week’s New Yorker asks “why Europeans are getting taller – and Americans aren’t”:

In “The Height Gap,” in this week’s issue and here online (see Fact), Burkhard Bilger writes about new questions raised by the study of human height. Here, with The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, Bilger discusses what height says about a society’s health—and why Americans may be falling behind.


I’d urge you read the whole thing. A few quick excerpts:

In our height lies the tale of our birth and upbringing, of our social class, daily diet, and health-care coverage. In our height lies our history.
...

Biologists say that we achieve our stature in three spurts: the first in infancy, the second between the ages of six and eight, the last in adolescence. Any decent diet can send us sprouting at these ages, but take away any one of forty-five or fifty essential nutrients and the body stops growing. (“Iodine deficiency alone can knock off ten centimetres and fifteen I.Q. points,” one nutritionist told me.)


While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, “the U.S. just went flat.” In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German. But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven’t grown taller in fifty years. By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.


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. “I’ve seen a similar thing in Guatemala,” Bogin says. “The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they’re still going to get exposed.”

Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits. “If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then we may not be getting the micronutrients we need,” he says. In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.


Boiled cabbage? Corned beef? Who knew? Somewhere in here, there’s a nice little essay on what all of this means – but I’m not sure that I’m up to that right now.

But a few quick comments. Writers like Greg Critser and Michael Pollan have already done excellent work to reveal the links between agricultural policy, abundant cheap corn, and rising obesity. What Bilger has done here is add a new dimension to the debate: "In our height lies the tale of our birth and upbringing, of our social class, daily diet, and health-care coverage. In our height lies our history."

But enough of the soapbox. Like everything else, it’s all the Republican’s fault.

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