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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Loses Its Stature as Tallest Country

Washington -- Pundits often opine that United States' stature is declining on the global stage. It turns out that Americans, literally, are not standing as tall in world rankings as they used to.

U.S. adults lost their position as the tallest people on Earth to the Dutch, who average about 5 centimeters taller than the typical American. In fact, U.S. men now rank ninth and women 15th in average height, having fallen short of many other European nations.

"Americans, who have been the tallest in the world for a very long time, are no longer the tallest," said John Komlos of the University of Munich, who has published a series of papers on the trend. "Americans have not kept up with Western European populations."

The idea that many Europeans are looking down on Americans has led to a flurry of interest in trying to explain the trend, with debate focusing on whether to blame the lack of universal health care and other holes in the nation's social safety net, particularly for children.

Nourished by a bountiful food supply and free from scourges that plagued Europe, Americans quickly became the tallest people in the world. The colonists were about 5 centimeters taller than the British they defeated in the Revolutionary War, and Americans towered about 7.5 centimeters above Europeans by the 1850s.

That trend prevailed for two centuries through both world wars as the United State's wealth and influence paralleled its dominant height.

But in a series of papers Komlos and others have shown that growth of the average American flagged beginning in the 1950s, allowing other countries to overtake the United States by the 1970s.

"Americans were still growing until the Eisenhower administration and then stopped for two decades, which is odd," Komlos said.

Komlos' most recent analysis excluded Hispanics and Asians to try to eliminate the effect of immigration.

The difference cannot be explained simply by the fact that Europeans became more prosperous, Komlos said. The United States continues to lead the world in per capita income, but the richest Americans are still shorter than the richest Europeans, he said.

Height is considered a bellwether of a society's well-being. As wealth increases, often so does height. Wealth usually improves nutrition and medical care, enabling people to reach their maximum growth potential and live longer.

Komlos and others noted that the contemporary U.S. diet, while plentiful, has become less nutritious in some ways, especially in recent years, which has helped fuel the obesity epidemic. So while Americans are no longer the tallest, they are among the widest.

The United States also lags far behind other countries in a host of important markers for childhood well-being. Rates of infant mortality, low-birth-weight babies and childhood poverty remain well higher than those in many European countries, and rates of childhood vaccination are much lower.

"Some people think the Dutch are really tall because they eat a lot of proteins when they are kids, and the Kenyans are really tall maybe because they drink the blood of their cattle," said Angus Deaton of Princeton University. "There's a lot of mysteries about this we still don't understand."