A Lancet study (2020) has just revealed that British teenagers are not growing at the same rate as those in other European due to a poor diet during school years; the study has also shown a 20cm height gap between the worlds tallest and shortest nations. The data of 65 million children and adolescents were analysed from over 2000 studies and showed that the UK’s global height ranking (amongst 19 year old boys) fell from 28th tallest in 1985 to 39th tallest in 2019. The BMI rankings of the UK also stand out badly compared to other first world countries.
Professor Majid Ezzati believes this is due to the highly successful school meal programmes in other European countries, including the free milk scheme in the Netherlands which he believes has helped children grow at a faster rate. There lies an imbalance between the investment in improving nutrition - in the UK, a motion to extend free school meals to low-income families during the COVID-19 pandemic was rejected by MPs (resulting in many local authorities scraping to provide meal vouchers to families themselves). The British government’s failure to make healthy nutrition available to the masses has the potential to cause lifelong health and wellbeing problems.
Whilst genetic factors account for between 60-80% of final height, 20-40% can be attributed to environmental effects – mainly nutrition. Good nutrition provides the foundations for bones, muscles and tissues, and it is vitally important that children and adolescents have access to sufficient protein, minerals, vitamins and carbohydrates to enhance growth and development:
- Proteins aid in the building, development and maintenance of muscles and tissues in the body.
- Minerals such as calcium are necessary for bone growth and strength; iron builds muscle and contributes to the formation of red blood cells; and magnesium helps to regulate metabolism.
- Vitamins (notably B1,B2, D and C) also promote bone health and regulate the digestive system.
- Carbohydrates provide children with the necessary energy to fuel the body and brain.
So why are the UK still in the dark ages with regards to children’s health and wellbeing – especially when there is evidence that a lack of quality food can lead to stunted growth and a rise in childhood obesity? Hopefully these new findings surrounding the link between height and nutrition highlight the need for change, and will motivate policies that increase the availability and reduce the costs of nutritious foods, helping all children grow and develop at a healthy rate.