Childhood nutrition has a direct impact on the height and weight of young people, researchers have said.
A team from Imperial College London studied growth patterns from 65 million children and teenagers aged between five and 19 from 193 countries around the world.
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They found there was a 20cm height difference between 19-year-olds in the tallest and shortest nations.
Teens from Bangladesh and Guatemala were the shortest and their height at 19 was the same as 11-year-olds from the Netherlands, the country which had the tallest boys and girls.
Senior author of the study, Professor Majid Ezzati, said: “Children in some countries grow healthily to five years, but fall behind in school years. This shows that there is an imbalance between investment in improving nutrition in pre-schoolers, and in school-aged children and adolescents.
“This issue is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools are closed throughout the world, and many poor families are unable to provide adequate nutrition for their children.”
The researchers also looked at worldwide Body Mass Index (BMI) in children. They found that the 19-year-olds with the largest BMI were from the Pacific islands, Middle East, USA and New Zealand.
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The lowest BMI’s were recorded in south Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh. The difference between the lightest and heaviest BMIs young people was 25 kg of weight.
The researchers believe the lack of quality, nutritious food in some countries is leading to stunted growth and in some cases childhood obesity.
In addition to the Netherlands, other countries from the northwest and central Europe, such as Montenegro, Denmark and Iceland had the tallest young people.
The shortest teenagers were discovered in mostly in south and southeast Asia, Latin America and East Africa, including Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and Bangladesh.
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Dr Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, the lead author of the study from Imperial’s School of Public Health, added: “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 pandemic. These actions would enable children to grow taller without gaining excessive weight, with lifelong benefits for their health and wellbeing.”
The findings of the study have been published in The Lancet.