Dutch Are Huge, Guatemalans Were Tiny, and Other Facts From 100 Years in Height

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Photo: Steven Gottlieb/Corbis via Getty Images

If the last time you were in Amsterdam it felt like you were in the land of giants, that wasn’t the narcotourism talking: According to a new 100-year study of every country in the world (!), Dutch men are the tallest to appear on Earth, at an average height of 182.5 centimeters, or about five-feet-nine, while the shortest recorded cohort was made up of Guatemalan women born in 1896, who averaged 140.3 centimeters, or four-feet-six.

The research team — a social-science supergroup called the Non-Communicable Disease Risk Factor Collaboration — reanalyzed 1,472 studies on 200 countries, representing data on some 18 million people born between 1896 and 1996.

The height stuff is high-stakes because, according to a raft of studies, your height has surprisingly far-reaching effects. Studies find that taller people tend to do better on cognitive tests, make more money, have more kids. National height also serves as a useful index of wealth and well-being for a country, since the malnourishment in childhood (or of one’s mother) puts a cap on how tall you can grow — indeed, there’s a persistent height gap between social classes, even in the UK.

You can see a lot of world history in height trends. The largest leap forward over the century of any cohort were South Korean women, who became 20.2 centimeters — or just under a full eight inches — taller from 1896 to 1996. That’s reflective of how South Korea went from being one of the world’s poorest countries to having the 13th-largest economy. Lots of African countries have actually fallen in height since the 1960s; the authors speculate that it’s because of how much more limited African diets have gotten, paired with the political instability following the end of colonialism. Among the top 25 countries with the tallest men born in 1996, only Australia was outside of Europe.

As for our part, the United States was one of the tallest countries a century ago, but has since been passed by lots of European countries, presumably because of how terrible U.S. diets were for much of the 20th century. Perhaps the slogan should be Make America Tall Again.