The mystery revolving around shortening of Americans may have been solved. The answer lies in the quality of the child care. A study done this summer by a German-based historian says stagnant growth among US kids starting in the 1950s, ended a nearly two-century reign of Americans as the world's tallest people.
The study by John Komlos of the University of Munich may have explained one of anthropometric history's enduring mysteries- why did Europeans' height catch up with Americans at a time when the US economy was booming?
When European settlers first came to the US, prosperity and open spaces led their children to sprout like saplings. By the time of American Revolution, US colonials were two inches taller than the British soldiers they defeated. By 1850, Americans were three inches higher than the Dutch - the tallest people in the world today. In World War I, the US GI was two inches taller than the German soldier he faced.
Suddenly, Americans stopped growing in the 1950s even though US entered one of its longest economic booms and saw huge advances in medicine and public health. It was a stagnation that continued until the 1990s, allowing European nations like the Netherlands and Norway to catch up and surpass Americans. Today, American males are only the ninth and American women the 15th tallest in the world.
Until then, it had been assumed the strongest correlation with height was wealth. Komlos found even rich Americans were shorter than rich Europeans. He also excluded recent immigrants from his study. He was able to show that from the 1950s, American children ceased growing taller even as their European counterparts continued to grow. US kids ate more junk food, had higher rates of infant mortality, lower birth weights and were more likely to suffer childhood poverty than European children. "American children are not as well taken care of as one would expect, given American incomes," Komlos was quoted as saying.
Not all experts buy Komlos's arguments. Those who stress genetics, for example, argue it is pointless to compare small homogenous countries like the Netherlands to large multiethnic societies like the US. The height difference between the US and larger European countries like Britain or France, they note, is relatively small.