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How did the Dutch get so tall?

How did the Dutch get so tall?

It’s a rude shock when you arrive in the Netherlands: back home you might consider yourself average height, above average or just plain tall, but once you’re in Dutch territory, like almost all expats, you'll end up feeling like a shorty.

According to Statistics Netherlands the average height of a Dutch adult in 2014 was 173,9cm. CBS reported that in 2011 average Dutch male height was 181cm and female height was 168cm. According to the 2016 NCD-RisC study, Dutch men were the tallest in the world, at 182,5cm on average and women in the Netherlands were the second tallest, at 168,7cm.

Other sources report average Dutch heights to be as much as 184cm and 171cm for men and women respectively. 

Some big questions

So why is it that the Dutch are so tall? How did they get that way? Is it all the milk, cheese and Dutch food they consume? The need to keep one’s head above water if the dikes break?

Investigations by a researcher and a professor of economic history offer some insight into how the Netherlands became the world’s tallest country.

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Height through history

Randy Olson is a computer science research assistant specialising in evolutionary computation at Michigan University. To determine key influential factors on height in the Netherlands and comparative countries, he turned to historical records.

Not surprisingly, historical height data is hard to come by, but Olson tracked down military records of new conscript heights, recorded annually, dating back to 1820. He found such records for six countries: the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Italy, France and the U.S.A.

To generate a historical overview, Olson then charted the median male height of the six surveyed nations between 1820 and 2013.

The Dutch were once short

Olson uncovered an interesting revelation: namely that the Dutch have not always been the tallest nation. In fact, back in the mid-1800s, along with France and Italy, they were one of the three shortest countries out of the six investigated.

From 1820 to 1875 median Dutch male height hovered around 165 centimetres before shooting up more than 15 centimetres over the last 130 years.

The democracy theory

Olson highlights the theory put forward by J.W. Drukker, a professor of economic history at the University of Groningen. Drukker asserts that the Dutch growth spurt that began in the mid-19th century corresponded to the establishment of the first parliamentary democracy.

Whereas previously wealth was in the hands of the elite, during the new democratic era it started to be distributed more evenly through society. This led to an increase in average income, providing more money to buy healthy food and healthcare, and enabling more parents to raise healthier children.

Other nation's heights

The Dutch weren’t the only ones to grow. Olson found that every European nation he surveyed experienced a huge height surge over the course of the 20th century, evidently thanks to developments in democracy, nutrition and healthcare.

However the Dutch experienced the most dramatic change, and only relatively recently became the tallest, when they outgrew the Danes and Germans in the 1980s.

Americans, on the other hand, who towered over their European counterparts for most of the 19th century, were slowly overtaken by Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in the 1950s. The median American male height peaked around 1980 before declining in the years since.

Not just how and when, but why?

So now we understand how and when the Dutch became taller, why are they taller?

Olson puts this down to the two most-likely factors: diet and genes. Firstly, the Dutch diet is rich in dairy, breads and meat. The Dutch certainly drink a lot of milk, essential during the key growing periods of childhood and adolescence.

Secondly, Dutch genes, limited for centuries by poor nutrition, may be finally realising their full potential. The fact that Scandinavian, German and other northern European nationalities follow closely in the height stakes indicates that regional genetics also play a big part.

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A new theory

In mid 2015, scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine put forward another theory based on health records taken from a Dutch database called Lifelines.

Referring to detailed records from between 1935 to 1967 of more than 94.500 Dutch people, the researchers found that the most "fertile" people (those who had the most children) were tall men, and women of average height.

As people who tended to be taller also had more children, they contributed more "tall" genes to the gene pool. The researchers thus concluded that natural selection must have also played in a role in increased Dutch heights.

Evidently tallness is considered an attractive quality in the Netherlands, and the proof can be seen all around us!

Were you surprised by the height difference when you first arrived in the Netherlands? Reaching the top kitchen shelf or at crowded concerts... where do you notice it the most?

Beatrice

Author

Beatrice Clarke

Beatrice is a native Melbournian who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. With a background in independent publishing and fashion, Beatrice honed her understanding of Dutch language and culture working...

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