It is, perhaps, with just a hint of satisfaction that the Dutch office for national statistics has confirmed that the men and women of the Netherlands remain the tallest people on the planet. But the government’s statisticians have had cause to report a further potentially humbling twist: the Dutch are shrinking.
For the last six decades the people of the lowlands have stood imperiously at the top of the world height league table, with the latest data suggesting the average 19-year-old man stood at just over 6ft tall (182.9cm) in 2020, while women born in the same year measured in at 5ft 5in (169.3cm).
The finding by the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS), a government institution, means the Netherlands maintains its lofty spot, which it has held since 1958, excusing a blip in 1967 when the men born that year came in at a miserable second place in the rankings.
But based on surveys of 719,000 people aged 19 to 60, the CBS has had to report that after a period of stagnation and now clear contraction, Dutch men born in 2001 are on average 1cm shorter than the generation born in the Netherlands in 1980, and Dutch women are 1.4cm smaller. And further analysis suggests it cannot all be explained by people coming into the Netherlands from other countries.
“The decrease is partly related to the increased immigration of shorter new population groups and the children born from these populations in the Netherlands”, the government statisticians explained. “But growth also stagnated in the generations in which both parents were born in the Netherlands, and in the generations in which all four grandparents were born in the Netherlands. Men without a migration background did not get any taller and women without a migration background show a downward trend.”
Scientists have been quick to offer some possible explanations, and even remedial solutions to the country’s height crisis.
Dr Gert Stulp at the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences said that while theories at this point were merely speculative, he would be interested to see whether the economic crash in 2007 might have had an impact. “Perhaps things like the financial crisis have meant that some children grew up in poorer conditions than in earlier cohorts,” he said. “Or perhaps inequality has risen: we know inequality affects average height, poorer childhood conditions lead to less growth in the vertical direction.”
The discovery of a similar trend in the US suggests that the related increased consumption of unhealthy fast food could be a factor, he suggested.
“Diets may have changed,” Stulp said. “Perhaps diets in the last years had fewer nutrients important for growth. This is believed to be the reason why the Americans are shrinking; poorer diets, more calories, but fewer nutrients. Even more speculatively, the decrease in height could be due to more people leaving out animal products in their diets. But again, there is no evidence for that.”
Stulp did not, however, rule out a switch to healthier food helping the Dutch maintain their table-topping record – and growing again. “Although there will of course be a physiological limit,” he said. “People are really not going to grow to an average height of three metres.”
The data is nevertheless a sober reminder for the Dutch that nothing stays the same for ever. More than a century ago, the tallest people were still mainly in North America and northern Europe, with Sweden and Norway standing proudly above all.
It was only in the first half of the 1900s that the Netherlands enjoyed a stunning growth spurt, hitting the heights in the 1950s.
Dutch men born in 1930 had reached an average height of 5ft 7in (175.6cm). Those born in 1980 topped 6ft (183.9cm) – a growth of 8.3cm in 50 years. The generation of women born in 1930 reached an average of 5ft 4in (165.4cm) while those born in 1980 reached 5ft 6in (170.7cm), almost 5.3cm extra in height.
The Office for National Statistics in the UK does not routinely collect data on height, but the latest special study in 2010 suggested the average height of a man in England and Wales was 5ft 9in (175.3cm) and a woman was 5ft 3in (161.6cm).
Research has suggested that beyond enjoying a better diet than in previous centuries, the Dutch experience was driven by natural selection: the people who had the most children were tall men, and women of average height. Compared to counterparts in other countries where they often tended to have fewer children, taller Dutch women in the Netherlands also reproduced more.
There is, however, a remarkably large difference in height between people from the north and south of the Netherlands. Men from Friesland, in the north, have consistently enjoyed a 3cm to 3.5cm advantage over their compatriots in Limburg in the south. It is mirrored among women, where the difference has been about 3cm.