A global analysis suggests that, on average, the tallest teenagers in the world live in the Netherlands.
Poor nutrition for school-age children can contribute to an average height difference of 20 centimeters between the countries with the highest averages and those with the lowest.
One study suggests that in 2019 the youngest 19 years old lived in the Netherlands (183.8 cm) and the lowest lived in East Timor (160.1 cm).
The study was published in the scientific journal The Lancet.
Researchers say that tracking changes in children’s height and weight around the world and over time is important because it can reflect the quality of nutrition available and how healthy the environments are for young people.
The team at Imperial College London, UK, analyzed data from more than 65 million children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years in more than 2,000 studies between 1985 and 2019.
They found that in 2019, on average, children and adolescents in northwest and central Europe (for example, those in the Netherlands and Montenegro) were the tallest in the world.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-olds who were on average the lowest lived in South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and East Africa.
The analysis suggests that in 2019:
- On average, 19-year-old boys in Laos were the same height (162.8 cm) as 13-year-old boys in the Netherlands.
- At 19, girls in Guatemala, Bangladesh, Nepal and East Timor had the same average height as 11-year-old Dutch girls (about 152 cm).
- In the UK, 19-year-old boys had an average height of 178.2 cm. And the girls 163.9 cm.
- The biggest improvements in the average height of children over the past 35 years have occurred in China and South Korea.
- But in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, average heights have remained unchanged or reduced since 1985.
Healthy weight gain
The study also looked at children’s Body Mass Index (BMI), a measure that helps to indicate whether a person has a healthy weight for their height.
The researchers found that older teenagers with the highest BMI lived in the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, the USA and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, 19-year-olds with the lowest BMI lived in countries in South Asia, such as India and Bangladesh.
The researchers believe that the difference between the countries with the lowest and highest BMI in the study was equivalent to about 25 kg.
In some countries, children reached a healthy BMI at the age of five, but are very likely to be overweight at age 19.
While researchers recognize that genetics play an important role in each child’s height and weight, they say that when it comes to the health of entire populations, nutrition and the environment are paramount.
They also argue that global nutrition policies focus predominantly on children under five, but suggest that their study shows that more attention should be paid to the growth patterns of older children.
Free school lunch
Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, from Imperial College London, one of the principal researchers, said that healthy weights and heights in childhood and adolescence bring benefits to people’s well-being for life.
She said: “Our findings should motivate policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of nutritious foods, as this will help children grow more without gaining excess weight for their height.”
“These initiatives include food stamps for nutritious food for low-income families and free healthy school lunches.”
Professor Alan Dangour, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the study is a unique and powerful analysis.
He added: “For the first time, this global analysis focused on the growth of school-age children and adolescents and identified that governments around the world are not doing enough to ensure that children enter adulthood in good health.”
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