Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Food and Health

I was going to add this article about height and health to another blog post, but it is so important it deserves a spotlight.  It shows, with sobering clarity of science, that there is something seriously wrong with public health in our country:

Then [in the 20th century] something strange happened. 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.

The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller. According to the National Center for Health Statistics—which conducts periodic surveys of as many as thirty-five thousand Americans—women born in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties average just under five feet five. Those born a decade later are a third of an inch shorter.

The average Japanese is now almost as tall as the average American.  And those numbers only include White, native-born Americans.  Our diet and lifestyle is that messed up.  Too many of us are simultaneously overweight and malnourished enough to stunt our growth.  Here's an amazing finding:

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.

There may be some flaw in the study methodology.  I have not been able to find it, and like most mainstream journalists they don't cite sources.  But my instinct is to believe it.

I read that article because it was linked to from this blog post, which is itself a good read:

Remember this the next time you read about the genetics of I.Q. and the arguments that are framed around differences in intelligence between races or other population groups. The heritability of I.Q. can be hard even to define (read this lengthy but worthwhile post by Cosma Shalizi to understand why) but good estimates often place it at around 50 percent—well below that of height. Environmental influences on I.Q. should therefore be huge, and one should be very skeptical of arguments that imply (or state outright) that any alleged differences between those groups are innate or unchangeable. Indeed, if Komlos and his colleagues are right that differences in health care explain the plateau in U.S. height, one might expect that those same health care differences—which certainly correlate with economic status and race in this country—could have a very marked effect on I.Q., too.

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