Poor Nutrition in Childhood Likely Behind a Global Height Gap

(CN) — A study which assessed the height and weight of 65 million school-aged children and adolescents across the world found wide variations likely due to health and quality of diet.

The Imperial College London compiled data from children aged 5 to 19 years old from 193 countries. The analysis, published Thursday in The Lancet, revealed a 7.8-inch between 19-year-olds in the tallest and shortest nations. This represented an eight-year growth gap for girls, and a six-year growth gap for boys.

For instance, the study revealed that the average 19-year-old girl in Bangladesh and Guatemala — the nations with the world’s shortest girls — is the same height as the average 11-year-old girl in the Netherlands, the nation with the tallest children.

The study also assessed children’s body mass index (BMI), which gives an indication of whether a person has a healthy weight for their height. The difference between the highest and lowest BMIs in the study was around 9 units of BMI, equivalent to about 55 pounds.

The international team behind the study warns that highly variable childhood nutrition, especially a lack of quality food, may lead to stunted growth and a rise in childhood obesity that affects a child’s health and well-*being for their entire life.

“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 preschoolers, and in school-aged children and adolescents,” said Majid Ezzati, senior author of the study and a professor at Imperial’s School of Public Health, in a statement accompanying the study. “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.”

The research, which reported data from 1985 to 2019, revealed the nations with the tallest 19-year-olds in 2019 were in northwest and central Europe, and included the Netherlands, Montenegro, Denmark and Iceland. The nations with the shortest 19-year-olds in 2019 were mostly in south and southeast Asia, Latin America and East Africa, including Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and Bangladesh.

Analysis also revealed that in many nations, children at age five had a height and weight in the healthy range defined by the World Health Organization. After this age, however, children in some countries experienced too small an increase in height and gained too much weight, compared to the potential for healthy growth.

Dr. Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, the lead author of the study from Imperial’s School of Public Health, added: “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 programs 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 well-being.”

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