20cm height gap across nations due to poor diets
South Asian countries, including India and Bangladesh, have the shortest 19-year-olds in the world, according to a study by Imperial College, London.
An average 19-year-old girl in Bangladesh is the same height as an 11-year-old girl in the Netherlands, it revealed.
The study also assessed children’s Body Mass Index (height to weight ratio), which indicates whether a person has a healthy weight for their height. The lowest BMI was found in adolescents from South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh, while the 19-year-olds from the Pacific islands, Middle East, USA and New Zealand have the highest BMI. The difference between the lightest and heaviest BMIs was nine units (25kg).
Other nations with the shortest 19-year-olds in 2019 were mostly in Latin America and East Africa.
A difference of 20cm was recorded in the tallest and shortest 19-year-olds from different countries, representing an eight-year growth gap for girls and a six-year gap for boys.
“Children in some countries grow healthily to five years, but fall behind in school years,” said Professor Majid Ezzati of Imperial’s School of Public Health. There is an imbalance between investment in improving nutrition in pre-schoolers, and in school-aged children and adolescents.
He noted that many poor families were unable to provide adequate nutrition to their children when schools were closed throughout the world due to COVID-19. The free healthy school meal programmes are under threat during the pandemic.
The most notable improvements in average height of children were observed in emerging economies such as China, South Korea, and some parts of southeast Asia.
In 2019, 19-year-old boys in China were found to be 8cm taller than in 1985, improving their global rank to the 65th tallest in the world from 150th.
“Our findings should motivate policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of nutritious food,” said Dr Andrea Rodriguez, the study’s lead author. She said reducing the costs will help children grow taller without gaining excessive weight for their height.
The study used data from 65 million children aged between five to 19 years from 193 countries. It was published in the journal The Lancet.