Posted on Nov 19, 2020, 1 p.m.
Teenagers can be up to 20cm shorter when they have a poor diet according to a recent global study led by Imperial College London: 19-year-old women in Bangladesh and Guatemala are the same height on average as 11-year-old girls in the Netherlands.
Inadequate nutrition may have contributed to the shortness of the 19-year-olds in South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and East Africa while the tallest are in Northwest and Central Europe. The study revealed that school-aged children’s weight and height which are indicators of health and quality of diet vary enormously around the globe.
The study findings published in the Lancet journal based on data from 65 million children between the ages of 5-19 living in 193 countries show that the average height of 19-year-old women in Guatemala and Bangladesh are the nations with the world’s shortest female population, with their height being the same as that of 11-year-old girls in the Netherlands which is the country with the tallest boys and girls.
The average height of 19-year-old males in Timor-Leste and Laos is the world’s shortest being the same as that of 13-year-old boys in the Netherlands. Some of the other tallest 19-year-olds in the world on average include those in Iceland with boys at 182.1 cm and girls at 168.9 cm; Denmark boys are 181.9 cm and girls are 169.5 cm; and in Montenegro boys are 183.3 cm and girls are 170 cm on average in height.
On the smaller side, by contrast, 19-year-olds on average were 163.1 cm for boys and 159.9 cm for girls in Papua New Guinea, in Guatemala boys are 164.4 cm and girls are 150.9 cm, and in Bangladesh boys are 165.1 cm and girls are 152.4 cm on average in height.
“Children in some countries grow healthily to five years, but fall behind in school years. This shows that there is an imbalance between investment in improving nutrition in pre-schoolers, and in school-aged children and adolescents,” says Professor Majid Ezzati, senior author of the study from Imperial College London's School of Public Health.
"This issue is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools are closed throughout the world, and many poor families are unable to provide adequate nutrition for their children.”
According to the study over the last 35 years British 19-year-olds have on average become taller than in 1985, but compared to those in other European countries they have fallen down in height rankings. Male UK 19-year-olds were on average 176.3 cm in 1985 ranking the 28th tallest in the world, now they are 178.2 cm tall on average ranking 39th tallest in the world. Female UK 19-year-olds were on average 162.7 cm in 1985 ranking 42nd tallest in the world, now they are 163.9 cm ranking 49th in the world.
This study also assessed BMI, analysis found that 19-year-olds with the largest BMI were found in the Pacific Islands, Middle East, USA and New Zealand. The lowest BMI were among 19-year-olds in South Asian countries, with the difference between the lightest and heaviest BMIs being around 9 units of BMI which is the equivalent of about 25 kg.
The international team of researchers warn that highly variable childhood nutrition could lead to stunted growth and an increase in childhood obesity, and the most important reason for this is the lack of adequate and healthy nutrition and living environment in the school years as both weight and height are closely linked to the quality of diet.
"Our findings should motivate policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of nutritious foods, as this will help children grow taller without gaining excessive weight for their height. These initiatives include food vouchers towards nutritious foods for low-income families, and free healthy school meal programmes which are particularly under threat during the pandemic. These actions would enable children to grow taller without gaining excessive weight, with lifelong benefits for their health and wellbeing,” said Dr. Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, the lead author of the study from Imperial's School of Public Health.
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