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The average Indian height is on the decline — find out why!7 min read

October 3, 2021 5 min read


The average Indian height is on the decline — find out why!7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We humans come in different shapes and sizes, and that is what makes us unique and beautiful in our own ways. Height, weight, skin colour — each of us is built differently. However, some things, like average height, is quite standard across geographies.

Photo: Giphy

According to the WHO’s growth reference standards, the global average height for women is 163 cm, and 176.5 cm for men. And this has been the case for generations and generations of humans.

So, what if we told you that according to a new study, the average height among Indians in actually decreasing!

Solve this simple math puzzle before moving on!

The study found that while global average heights are increasing, in India, the situation is quite the opposite.

This image shows the increase in human height as we evolved from theAustralopithecus to the Homo erectus and finally the Homo sapien.
Photo: Roger Hane

Let’s dive in…

What is the study all about?

According to a new study titled ‘Trends in adult height in India from 1998 to 2015: Evidence from the National Family and Health Survey,’ adults’ average heights in India are decreasing, while global average heights are increasing.

As an example, have a look at this chart. It illustrates the distribution of mean height of women according to age. Photo: Trends of adult height in India from 1998 to 2015: Evidence from the National Family and Health Survey.

“In the context of an overall increase in average heights worldwide, the decline in average height of adults in India is alarming and demands an urgent enquiry,” the authors of the study said.

The findings from India highlight the need to investigate non-genetic factors as well as the interaction of genetic, nutritional, and other social and environmental determinants on height, they noted.

How was the study conducted?

Photo: Giphy

The authors used quantitative secondary data analysis to investigate the variation in height among adults in India in order to track trends.

The National Nutritional Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) both gather data on height on a broad basis.

The authors of this study looked into various height trends among people in India, and the findings revealed that the average height of women and men in the 15-25 year age range has dropped significantly in recent years.

While women’s average height has declined by roughly 0.42 cm, men’s average height has decreased by 1.10 cm in that age group.

Also, these findings were not limited to one community — the trend persisted across religious groups, caste or tribe, and wealth index.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

Countries with tallest men

1. Netherlands

2. Belgium

3. Estonia

4. Latvia

5. Denmark

Countries with tallest women

1. Latvia

2. Netherlands

3. Estonia

4. Czech Republic

5. Serbia

Why does this matter?

Photo: Giphy

It seems like it’s only a few miniscule centimetres — so why does this decrease in height matter?

Hereditary factors are thought to account for 60–80 percent of a person’s final height. Which means that the height of our parents and their parents and so on, affect how tall we are going to be.

However, genes aren’t the sole predictor of a person’s height. Environmental and social factors play a significant role too, which is the concerning part.

Non-genetic factors such as nutrition and environment play a significant role. Variables such as household characteristics (such as number of siblings) and caste have an impact on an individual’s nutrition and growth.

Height is also highly correlated with wealth. People from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities are, on average, shorter than those belonging to Other Backward Class and Upper Castes.

Thus, a person’s height is a marker of physical well-being and standard of living. Studying height could therefore lead to a better understanding of the impact of health policies.

Height is also linked to how productive we are and on our performance. According to World Bank, a 1% loss in adult height due to childhood stunting can lead to a 1.4% loss in economic productivity.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

According to studies, being tall is associated with better health such as living longer, being less likely to suffer from heart and respiratory diseases. Taller women are also less likely to have complications during child birth.
On the other hand, tall people are at risk of certain types of cancers such as colon, breast and ovarian cancers.

The nutrition factor

Having data on average height is also important in understanding how healthy we are as a society. It also sheds light on the government policies linked to nutrition in our country.

A balanced diet is a mixture of several important food groups.
Photo: Fairfield Medical Centre

In India, the health situation is, unfortunately, not so great. Currently, the country ranks 94 out of a 107 countries on the 2020 Global Hunger Index. India also has one-third of the world’s stunted children. It also has the most number of children who are underweight for their height.

Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has made things worse. A survey called The Covid-19 Crisis and People’s Right to Food, showed that 53%-77% respondents were eating less during the pandemic than the period before.

Adding to this, data from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy shows a sharp decline in the consumption of nutrient and protein-rich food, across all income groups, during the pandemic.

A study by the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition shows that women’s dietary diversity — the number of food groups they consume — declined during the lockdown compared to the same period in 2019. This drop, the study found, was due to the decreased consumption of foods like meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, which are rich in nutrients that are crucial to good health and development.

How much do you know about nutrition and the importance of a well-balanced diet? Solve the quiz below to test your knowledge.

Sources: India Today, Scroll, Scientific American, BBC