SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Americans might have a national self-image of being tall and rangy - think Gary Cooper, Michael Jordan or Taylor Swift. Turns out, we may look more like Judy Garland or Kevin Hart. During these past two weeks in which America has been praised, panned and hyperbolized at political conventions, Imperial College in London came out with a study that shows, size-wise, Americans may have topped out.
Researchers scoured height data of young adults in over 200 countries between 1914 and 2014. South Korean women and Iranian men have shot up by averages of 6 and 7 inches. American men and women have grown only about 2 inches taller in that time, with no measurable increase for the past 20 years.
America once had the third-tallest men in the world and fourth-tallest women. Today, it's 37th and 42nd place. Of course, there's nothing wrong with growing taller at a smaller rate or being short on the order of Napoleon, Gandhi, Tom Cruise or Dr. Ruth. Height is not accomplishment or character, but the authors of the study caution that height can be related to health.
Most societies have grown taller over the past century, but the average height of people in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Rwanda, for example, has declined by more than an inch. Those countries are among the poorest in the world, where food can be scarce and health care hard to find. Professor Majid Ezzati, the study's lead researcher, said, this confirms we urgently need to address children and adolescents' environment and nutrition on a global scale. But he also noted that the 10 countries where men and women are tallest are in Europe - the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Belgium, for example.
The English-speaking world, especially the USA, is falling behind other high-income nations in Europe and Asia-Pacific, said the professor. Together with the poor performance of these countries in terms of obesity, this emphasizes the need for more effective nutrition throughout life, which may be academic talk for put down the chicken nuggets, pick up the celery.
These kinds of occasional rankings can be entertaining, but they're not truly competitions. The average height of Chinese men and women has increased by almost four inches, especially since the 1970s. The spread of better health, nutrition and prosperity in China, South Korea and other parts of the globe have been good for the world. But you do wonder, are the Dutch so tall because of gouda cheese? Should Americans eat more edam, less cheddar?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 FOOT MAN")
ADAM SANDLER: (Singing) I'm 7 feet tall, and I repeat, they don't make a ski boot that can fit my feet. I'm 7 feet tall, and I don't play basketball. I'm 7 feet tall...
SIMON: Adam Sandler, the Cole Porter of our times. You're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.