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Friday, June 15, 2007

A nation of "normal-sized people."
Posted by Jill | 6:44 AM
I am 4'10-1/2" tall. I'm don't have dwarfism, nor am I a "little person." I'm the spawn of short parents and even shorter grandparents. My paternal grandmother was just about my height. There's no mystery to why I'm not 5'9" and blonde and willowy; it's because my lineage is short Jewish peasant people from Russia and Poland.

Conventional wisdom has it that not only do Americans LIKE everything big -- big cars, big houses, big furniture, big sports, big business, we also ARE big. The hue and cry over obesity, particularly in children, has reached ridiculous proportions, with once again, the blame placed on Americn gluttony, rather than on the crap of which American food is formulated.

But apparently, while the rise of the fast food and processed food industries has created quantity of food, the poor quality of the American hurry-up diet is taking a toll, not even so much horizontally, but vertically.

Paul Krugman:

To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.

The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”


So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.

It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.

And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.

One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”

“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.

A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.

Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.

Well, while I don't particularly care for Mr. Krugman's painting of all people who are short of stature (or "normal-sized", as a 5'4" male co-worker once described us) as being indicative of something "nasty and brutish", it's clear that while the American way of life is characterized by quantity, its quality is lacking. The stress of trying to keep a job, of having to work twice as hard and twice as long as your peers in order to be thought of as dispensable, creates stress which may be a contributor to obesity. Meals are to be rushed through, so that the kids can get to their homework, their soccer practice, their tae kwon do class, and Mom and Dad can get to bed to put in another 12-hour day at the office, because if either of them loses a job, the mortgage payment on the McMansion and the payment on the Ford Expedition can't be met. And if Mom and Dad have perhaps a weight problem and want to carve out an hour to go to the gym or work out at home, forget about it -- it's more important to show ourselves to be indispensable at work.

As someone who has purged as much processed food from my life as possible, particularly those items containing high fructose corn syrup, and who eschews fast food whenever possible, I can tell you that it isn't the effort and time expended preparing food that increases, it's the time expended planning HOW to prepare food. It's a lot easier just to dump a half-bottle of Lawry's marinade over a pork tenderloin and pop it in the fridge than to mix up a teriyaki marinade in the morning -- and yet, if you want to stay away from the HFCS, that's what you do. We are so accustomed to convenience -- prepared sauces and packaged side dishes that even when we ARE committed to cooking at home, a certain amount of retraining ourselves is required.

Fast food and pre-prepared food are like cigarettes -- you may WANT to stop consuming it, but it's just so damned easily available. It's hard to blame harried parents for choosing to just stop by the drive-thru rather than think about how to prepare the meat and what to serve with it. Sure, there's the obligatory rant of NOT building your life around having a lavish McMansion and a lavish vehicle and pulling the kids out of school because they are ENTITLED to a Disney World vacation. But when finding and buying and preparing fresh foods that aren't adulterated by the Big Food Industry is more difficult than finding crap, particularly in, but not limited to, low-income neighborhoods, it's going to take a lot more than threatening parents with visits from the authorities if their children are overweight to change the American attitudes towards material goods consumption, work, and food.

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