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Height in The Netherlands. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, but they’ve stopped growing.

Authors:
  • Dutch Dairy Association
  • Leiden University Medical Center

Abstract and Figures

[Update Sept 2021: A new report of the Dutch Bureau of Statistics CBS reports that the Dutch are still the tallest in the world. However, the generation born in 1980 is the tallest, but later generations are a bit smaller. So the average Dutch is shrinking a bit. End update]. The Dutch have developed into the tallest people in the world. For a century and a half, the Dutch have been growing taller, but this growth has now surprisingly come to a standstill. Have the Dutch reached the maximum human height? Or are there adverse factors that have put the brakes on this secular trend? This ia a translation of an article in Nutrition Magazine. Want to use reference? Use title with: Peters & Vrij Voeding Magazine (1) 2019 pp 20-23
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The Dutch have developed into the tallest people in the world.
For a century and a half, the Dutch have been growing taller, but
this growth has now surprisingly come to a standstill. Have the Dutch
reached the maximum human height? Or are there adverse factors
that have put the brakes on this secular trend?
The Dutch are the tallest
people in the world, but
they’ve stopped growing
Height in the Netherlands
REPORT
≥ 182,0 cm
180,0-181,9 cm
178,0-179,9 cm
177,0-177,9 cm
177,0 > cm
This article was published in Voeding Magazine 1 – 2019
1
Changes in the average height of a popu-
lation over time are called a secular trend.
It is generally assumed that the height
increases in the Netherlands since 1858
have been a result of improved hygiene,
overall nutrition and prosperity. In 1858,
the average height in the Netherlands was
163 cm. A century and a half later, this
increased by 21 cm, reaching the current
average height of 184 cm for adult men.
Today’s Dutch women average 171 cm
tall.1 This makes the Dutch the tallest
people in the world. Since 1955, when
the first of five successive National Growth
Studies was conducted, data on human
height in the Netherlands has become
much more nuanced (Figure 1).2
Stagnating growth
Notably, the most recent National Growth
Study (2009) showed a stagnation in growth
in both men and women compared to 1997.
The same stagnation was found when
looking at the secular trend in children.
Figure 2 plots the height dierences
between each of the four National Growth
Studies compared to the first in 1955. Data
from all years indicates a clear increase in
height in both boys and girls as of four
years old. Data from 2009, however,
shows little change compared to 1997,
even though average body weight did
increase in the period 1997-2009.3
Population diversity
The changing makeup of the population
through factors such as immigration does
not explain the stagnating secular trend.
The National Growth Studies only include
data from people with both parents born
in the Netherlands. Only about 4-5% of
third generation Dutch are included in the
study, people who tend to be shorter, on
average, than the indigenous Dutch – but
according to the study’s authors, this
group is too small to justify the stagnating
growth. Both the 1997 and 2009 National
Growth Studies included data from
children of Turkish or Moroccan descent,
in addition to children of indigenous
Dutch descent. In the 1997 study, children
of Turkish or Moroccan descent averaged
about 5 cm shorter than children of
indigenous Dutch descent; among young
adults, the dierence rose to 10 cm.
It is notable that in children of Turkish
or Moroccan descent, a positive secular
trend was seen: about 3 cm among adults
between 1997 and 2009, in contrast to
the trend seen among indigenous Dutch
children.4
Regional differences
In the Netherlands, height varies across
several groupings of the population.
The National Growth Studies indicate
that higher educated children and children
with university or college educated
parents tend to be taller than children
whose parents were vocationally trained.
There is also a notable dierence in average
height between the north and south of the
Netherlands (Figure 3). Children from the
south are considerably shorter than children
from the north. Residents of the urban
areas (Western part) in the Netherlands
fall in the middle in this regard. Boys and
girls from the north of the Netherlands
are on average 1.6 cm and 1.4 cm taller,
respectively, than children from the south
of the country. The dierences between
these two regions, however, are gradually
disappearing.2
International trends
The secular trends in other Northern
European countries, like Denmark, and
in Germany are gradually slowing down.
In Iceland, the trend remains positive, as
well as in the Dinaric Alps (an area in the
AUTHORS PROFESSOR JAN MAARTEN WIT (PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF PEDIATRICS,
WILLEM-ALEXANDER CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL, LEIDEN UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER) AND
DR. STEPHAN PETERS (MANAGER OF NUTRITION AND HEALTH, DUTCH DAIRY ASSOCIATION NZO)
Figure 1. Average human height in each of the five National Growth Studies
160
165
170
175
180
185
1955 1965 1980 1997 2009
Final height (cm)
Study year
Male
Female
Figure 2. Height increases among boys (a) and girls (b) in
the National Growth Studies from 2009 ( ), 1997 ( ),
1980 ( ) and 1965 ( ) compared to 1955
b 10
8
6
4
2
0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21
Height difference
from 1955 (cm)
Age (years)
a 12
10
8
6
4
2
0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21
Height difference
from 1955 (cm)
Age (years)
2
former Yugoslavia). Inhabitants of
Montenegro seem to have caught up:
recent data indicates that they average
as tall as or even taller than the Dutch.5
A positive secular trend is generally seen as
a sign of improved health and prosperity,
though there is no direct evidence for this.
The reverse is more likely: a decreasing
secular trend is usually an indicator for
deteriorating health and prosperity.
Decreasing secular trends have been
observed in countries like Lithuania and
Azerbaijan, where height increases began
to plateau during severe economic reces-
sions. Since the beginning of this century,
Lithuania’s economy has begun to bounce
back, and the height of the population is
also increasing again; it is estimated that
this growth will catch up to the country’s
previous peak. What the stagnating trend
means in the Netherlands is dicult to
ascertain. Are “increases in health” now on
the decline in the Netherlands, or have we
reached the optimum height level, and
therefore the maximum?
Maximum height reached?
On average, the Dutch are the tallest
people in the world. In theory, we could
have reached the maximum attainable
average height and that further growth
is not possible. This would mean that the
economic, health and living situation in
the Netherlands is optimal for human
growth. For decades, the Netherlands
Institute for Social Research has been
keeping a quality of life index (the Life
Situation Index, or LSI). This measures the
“progress” of the Netherlands. The LSI is
based on eight indicators: health, sports,
social engagement, culture and leisure,
housing, vacations, mobility and property.
Over the span of the National Growth
Studies up to and including that of 2009,
the LSI was increasing, while the secular
trend plateaued between 1987 and 2009.
The economic situation in the Netherlands
also improved in that period. We must
therefore look beyond general measures
of economic prosperity and health.
“Growth factors”
A study by Grasgruber, et al. in 2014
investigated which determinants can be
decisive in an increase in height.5 Nutrition
emerged as the most important factor,
though it is not the only one, nor can
causality be proven here. To illustrate the
complexities in the relationships between
certain determinants and height, here are
a few examples:
There is a moderately strong positive
correlation between average buying
power and economic growth in a
country, and the average height of
its population.
There is a moderately strong positive
correlation between healthcare
expenditure and the average height
of a population.
There is a strong negative correlation
between child mortality before the
age of five and the average height of a
population.
There is a positive correlation between
social equality in a country and the
average height of its population.
Overweight population
The National Growth Studies indicate not
only that the secular trend has stagnated,
but also that the average weight of the Dutch
population has increased. Overweight
adolescents are as tall as adolescents who
fall in the normal weight range.7 A possible
explanation for the stagnating secular
trend could therefore lie in the increasing
weight of adolescents.
Animal protein
One of the strongest links between human
height and nutrition is that between protein
Figure 4. Relationship between average intake of wheat protein and average adult male height
(r = -0.68; p < 0.001)5
Figure 3. Regional height differences in the 1997 ( )
and 2009 ( ) National Growth Studies. SDS= Standard
Deviation Score
c 0.4
0.3
0.2
0.1
0
-0.1
-0.2
Height SDS
HighMiddleLow
b 0.4
0.3
0.2
0.1
0
-0.1
-0.2
Height SDS
HighMiddleLow
a 0.3
0.2
0.1
0
-0.1
-0.2
-0.3
Height SDS
SouthEast Major
cities
North East
Height in the Netherlands
REPORT
170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185
10.00
12.00
14.00
16.00
18.00
20.00
22.00
24.00
26.00
28.00
30.00
32.00
34.00
36.00
38.00
40.00
42.00
44.00
46.00
48.00
50.00
52.00
54.00
Average consumption of wheat proteins
(g/day per capita) 2000-2009
Average male height (cm)
Azerb
Tur
Arm Alb Rom Geo
Ita Rus Gre
Lith
PolMac
Bul
Port
Mold Ukr
Hun Fra
UK
Irl Svk Nor
CroBelg
Aut Cze
Isl
Den
Fin
Spain
Switz USA
Slo Ger
Serb
Lat Est
Swe
Bos Neth
Mont
NZL
Belar
Cyprus
Austr
3
intake and height. People in countries
where mainly plant protein is consumed
are shorter than those in countries where
more animal protein is consumed. The
secular trend begins to increase as soon
as plant protein in the average diet is
replaced with animal protein. This change
usually coexists with improved prosperity.6
There is a clear positive link between
height and the consumption of animal
protein, and a negative link between
height and the consumption of plant
protein. Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the
height variations given the consumption
levels of animal or wheat protein.
Top 3 foods with a positive
correlation with height:
1. Dairy products
2. Cheese
3. Pork
Top 3 foods with a negative
correlation with height:
1. Wheat
2. Cornflakes
3. All plant protein5
It is dicult to account for the dierent
ways that plant and animal protein impact
human height. What is clear is that plant
protein is less suitable than animal protein
for stimulating muscle growth. This
dierence can be explained by the more
favorable amino acid composition of
animal and especially milk protein or by
the anabolic properties of, among other
things, the amino acid leucine, which is
more common in milk protein.8 However,
it is still too early to make any definitive
statements in this regard.
Conclusion
A secular trend – changes in average
height over time – is a result of a complex
mix of several factors. A positive secular
trend in a country follows an increase in
nutritional quality, which also comes
with increased prosperity and improved
healthcare. Height is strongly positively
correlated with increased intake of animal
protein, dairy protein in particular.
Worsening diets and increased levels of
overweight individuals are correlated
with height decline. In the last decades,
the Netherlands has focused on a more
plant-based diet. The current government
policy also targets a protein transition to
a more plant-based diet. This can have
consequences for the average height of
the Dutch.
Referenties
1 Fredriks AM, van Buuren S, Burgmeijer RJ, et al. Continuing positive secular growth change in The Netherlands 1955-1997.
Pediatr Res. 2000;47(3):316-323.
2 Schonbeck Y, Talma H, van Dommelen P, et al. The world's tallest nation has stopped growing taller: the height of Dutch
children from 1955 to 2009. Pediatr Res. 2013;73(3):371-377.
3 Schonbeck Y, Van Buuren, S. Factsheet vijfde Landelijke Groei Studie. 2010.
4 Schonbeck Y, van Dommelen P, HiraSing RA, van Buuren S. Trend in height of Turkish and Moroccan children living in the
Netherlands. PLoS One. 2015;10(5):e0124686.
5 Grasgruber P, Cacek, J., Kalina, T., Sebera, M. The role of nutrition and genetics as key determinants of the positive height
trend. Economics and Human Biology. 2014;15:81-100.
6 Grasgruber P, Sebera M, Hrazdira E, Cacek J, Kalina T. Major correlates of male height: A study of 105 countries. Econ Hum
Biol. 2016;21:172-195.
7 Brener A, Bello R, Lebenthal Y, Yackobovitch-Gavan M, Phillip M, Shalitin S. The Impact of Adolescent Obesity on Adult
Height. Horm Res Paediatr. 2017;88(3-4):237-243.
8 van Vliet S, Burd NA, van Loon LJ. The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein
Consumption. J Nutr. 2015;145(9):1981-1991.
Figure 5. Ratio of high-quality protein intake (milk, pork and fish) to low-quality protein intake (wheat)
in relation to average adult male height between 2000 and 2009 (r = 0.72; p < 0.001)5
There is a clear
positive link
between height and
the consumption of
animal protein
170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185
0
2
4
6
8
10
12
14
16
18
20
22
24
26
28
30
Ratio between high- and low-quality protein consumption
(milk products, pork meart, fish/wheat) (200-2009)
Average male height (cm)
Male height = 173,86 + (3,25 * Protein ratio)
Neth
Mont
Swe
Isl
Den
Est
Fin
Aut
Ger
Lat
Slo
USA
Belar Switz
Spain
Cyprus
Port Fra
Uk Pol
Gre Cro
Svk
NZL
Hun
Rom
Ita
Ukr Rus
Mac
Geo
Mold
Bul
Alb
Arm
Tur
Azerb
Bos
Austr
Irl Belg
Lith
Cze
Serb
Nor
4
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Since 1858, an increase of mean stature has been observed in the Netherlands, reflecting the improving nutritional, hygienic, and health status of the population. In this study, stature, weight, and pubertal development of Dutch youth, derived from four consecutive nationwide cross-sectional growth studies during the past 42 y, are compared to assess the size and rate of the secular growth change. Data on length, height, weight, head circumfer- ence, sexual maturation, and demographics of 14 500 boys and girls of Dutch origin in the age range 0 -20 y were collected in 1996 and 1997. Growth references for height and weight were constructed with a method that summarizes the distribution by three smooth curves representing skewness (L curve), the median (M curve), and coefficient of variation (S curve). The relationship between height and demographic variables was assessed by multivariate analysis. Reference curves for menarche and sec- ondary sex characteristics were estimated by a generalized addi- tive model using a logit transformation. A positive secular growth change has been present in the past 42 y for children, adolescents, and young adults of Dutch origin, although at a slower rate in the last 17 y. Height differences according to region, educational level of child and parents, and family size have remained. In girls, median age at menarche has decreased by 6 mo during the past four decades to 13.15 y. Environmental conditions have been favorable for many decades in the Nether- lands, and the positive secular change in height has not yet come to a halt, in contrast to Scandinavian countries. Main contributors to the increase in height may be improved nutrition, child health, and hygiene, and a reduction of family size. (Pediatr Res 47: 316-323, 2000)
Factsheet vijfde Landelijke Groei Studie
  • Y Schonbeck
  • S Van Buuren
Schonbeck Y, Van Buuren, S. Factsheet vijfde Landelijke Groei Studie. 2010.