Analysis of the results of national health surveys carried out by the Ministry of Health shows that the height of Spanish men and women born between 1990 and 1994 is stagnating.
The surveys were part of a recent study by Spanish sociologists and historians on height and socio-economic status. The researchers want to find out ‘what happened during that period’ and ‘whether the trend is continuing or whether it is a temporary and transitory stagnation’. ‘Something is happening in the diet that is making the body broader and it is not growing at the rate and intensity that it has done over the past few decades’.
‘It wasn’t the desired result,’ admits Antonio David Cámara, a sociologist at the University of Jaén and one of the researchers focusing on how socio-economic differences affect population height, and how this has changed in recent decades. When we analysed the data from his research, ‘we stumbled across this, and we knew it would attract attention, as we have four decades of secular growth in height behind us. But it didn’t surprise me so much,’ he confesses. ‘Life expectancy has increased at a staggering rate in Spain over the last four decades’. This is one of the data that emerges from his study: that from the 1950s onwards, the average height of Spaniards skyrocketed, and began to grow very intensely. ‘Spain may follow a little later, and we take a long time, but after that we go very fast’.
He warns: ‘We cannot expect the average height to keep growing at the same rate as it did in those four decades. Because then, in the next decade, men would be taller than 1.80 metres. Since the study uses averages, an average height of 1.80 metres ‘would mean that at least 25% are taller than 2 metres, i.e. one in four men’. Biologically’, he says, ‘this does not seem very plausible’.
Similar to the rest of Europe
However, this stagnation in height is not exclusive to Spain. The same trend of flattening the average height is observed in other European countries. Either the trend in intergenerational growth is slowing down or it is stagnating. Why? We don’t know,’ the researcher acknowledges. They do not know, but with regard to Spain, they point to some hypotheses.
For Cámara, the most likely is that ‘Spain has achieved a normalisation in the main factors of living conditions, access to a healthy diet, the prevalence of infectious diseases, access to a large number of goods and services guaranteed by social benefits have been normalised. And when you normalise the environmental conditions, you reach the maximum biological potential.
Intense growth over decades
José Miguel Martínez Carrión, professor of economic history at the University of Murcia and one of the first to study prestige in Spain, also admits to being ‘surprised’ by the results of his research. ‘Because we have been analysing the evolution of the height of Spaniards for a long time, and we are the men who grew the most in the second half of the 20th century. Especially since the 1980s, as a result of the profound economic and social changes, Spanish men have grown significantly’.
Relationship to standard of living
‘Length reflects the standard of living of a society,’ the historian explains. ‘But also inequality, income level and access to sources of nutrients. If the environment in childhood and adolescence is favourable, this is reflected in height.
For the study respondents between 23 and 49 years of age were examined, i.e. the age at which body height remains stable. The surprise is greatest with the youngest group. The last five-year period that we analysed was 1990-1994. It concerns women and men between 23 and 27 years old. If we look at the height of men and women in that range, we see a stagnation’.
More research is needed
However, Martínez Carrión keeps warning that the data is ‘striking but sparse’, and that ‘much more research is needed’ to identify the cause of this stagnation. ‘We want to investigate what happened during this period. With the data we have, we can only make hypotheses’.
Changes in the diet of children and adolescents
I looked at per capita milk consumption, which has been falling in Spain since the 1990s. This consumption starts to grow intensively in the 1950s, but in the 1990s it stops and starts to decline intensively’. And milk is a basic protein for the growth of children. Perhaps the quality of children’s food is not so good,’ warns Martínez Carrión.
He suggests that the quality of the nutrients could be an element that could explain this stagnation in height growth. However, he does not dare go any further for the time being. And he points to something else. We are getting fatter. Could the increase in obesity also have something to do with it?
The historian does not rule it out. ‘Something is happening in the diet that is making the body broader and not growing at the rate and intensity at which it has grown in recent decades’. He recalled that ‘20% of the Spanish population cannot make ends meet’, that ‘inequality and the vulnerability of a part of the population have increased’. And he pointed out that ‘we may be reorienting our diet towards the consumption of cheap fast food products, for example…. We are seeing more and more obese children. Something is going wrong in the diet of children and adolescents’.
Whether changes in diet are behind the stagnation in growth is not clear. But ‘we all know how important the first three years of life are for children’s development. And we see that adolescence is also a critical and very sensitive phase,’ warns Carrión. In this case, it is ‘malnutrition due to excess, not deficiency: due to an excess of calories and the consumption of low-quality nutrients’.
The researcher also points out that these young people, born in the 1990s, were affected by the 2008 crisis at the end of their adolescence. Could this period of recession also have affected their development? We do not know. What is clear is that something happened’.
Temporary or permanent stagnation?
If the stagnation is temporary, ‘then that would have an impact, because if we start growing again, then something happened in those generations. But if it stays that way, then that is the limit we have reached,’ they say. The cause would then be more along the lines of that ‘maximum biological potential’ that Cámara pointed out. Whatever the reason, the data is there. And while they find the explanation, the researchers hope it will at least serve as a ‘wake-up call to the institutions’.
Also read: Spain´s changing birth rate