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[NEW DELHI] For school-aged children and adolescents, the height and body mass index (BMI) over age and time show substantial variation across countries, suggesting differences in nutritional quality and lifelong advantages and risks related to health, a global analysis has found.
Published 7 November in The Lancet, the analysis assessed data from 2,181 studies that looked at (during 1985—2019) 65 million children and adolescents, aged 5—19 years, from 200 countries and territories.
“There is an imbalance between investment in improving nutrition in pre-schoolers, and in school-aged children and adolescents”
Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, Imperial College London
Calculated by dividing body weight by the square of the height, BMI indicates whether individuals have healthy weight for their height. According to the analysis, in 2019, among boys and girls, a difference of approximately 9—10 kilograms per square metre was noted between countries with highest mean BMI (New Zealand, Pacific Island countries, Bahrain and the US), and the lowest mean BMI (Bangladesh, India, Timor-Leste, Ethiopia and Chad).
Similar variations were also noted in the height of adolescents across countries. For example, in Bangladesh, Nepal, Timor Leste and Guatemala — the countries with shortest girls in the world — the height of an average 19-year-old girl was the same as the height of an average 11-year-old girl in the Netherlands — the country with the world’s tallest boys and girls.
In terms of average height of children and adolescents, China, South Korea and some South-East Asian countries showed major improvement during 1985—2019, whereas there was stagnation and reduction in average height of children in many sub-Saharan African countries.
Compared with other countries, girls in Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and some central Asian countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, and boys in central and western Europe, including Poland, Denmark, Portugal and Montenegro, showed healthiest changes (in both height and BMI) during 1985—2019; they had much larger gain in height than in BMI.
Unhealthiest changes during 1985—2019, such as gaining too little height, too much weight for the height, or both, were noted in Malaysia and some Pacific island countries for boys, Mexico for girls, and New Zealand, the US, and many sub-Saharan African countries for boys and girls.
“Our analysis revealed that, in many nations, children at age five had height and weight in the healthy range, as defined by WHO. However, after this age, children in some countries have experienced too small an increase in height and gained too much weight, compared to the potential for healthy growth,” says Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, lead author of the analysis from Imperial College London.
“This shows that there is an imbalance between investment in improving nutrition in pre-schoolers, and in school-aged children and adolescents,” she tells SciDev.Net.
“Our findings should motivate policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of nutritious foods, as this will help children grow taller without gaining excessive weight for their height. These initiatives include food vouchers towards nutritious foods for low-income families, and free, healthy school meal programmes which are particularly under threat during the [COVID-19] pandemic,” she adds.
“Most South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and India seem to be at the lower edge and therefore, an urgent intervention is mandated for these countries,” she argues.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.