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Diet and Stature
Robb Wolf  |  Nutrition  |  April 28 2006

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Nicki and I were shopping in Trader Joe’s the other night and the woman ahead of us was having an interesting conversation with the cashier. She was buying a whole slew of soy products and the cashier said he just read a news piece about the possible health downsides of soy. The woman (about 5’ tall) said she was from Japan and that soy products had been part of the diet for thousands of years and if there was a problem with soy she would have heard about it by now. I chimed in that 2nd generation Japanese Americans are typically 6-8 inches taller than their parents and this is due mainly to the high phytate content of the traditional Japanese diet which makes things like calcium and magnesium unavailable for growth. Both the cashier and the woman looked at me like I just asked where the Baby Harp Seal Pate was. The woman mumbled something like “yes, that’s right” and wandered out of the store, snazzily packaged soy products in tow. Now I’m not sure why but the exchange reminded me of a paper I read years ago about the average heights of Native Americans and how the Plains Indians were the tallest people on earth at one time. It took a little searching but I found the papers by Steckle and Prince. The full paper can be found at these links:

 
I pulled two interesting paragraphs from the papers, one paper dealing with the height distribution and the other dealing with resistance to tuberculosis by the Plains Indians. Both papers point to the exceptionally nutrient dense diets and high level of activity and social networking as reasons for the hardiness of these people. Here are those paragraphs:
 “The geographic distribution of heights tended to follow an inverted-U shape with respect to latitude. The southern-most tribes, the Comanche and the Kiowa, were relatively short, as were the northern-most tribes, the Assiniboin and the Blackfeet. The Cheyenne of the mid-latitudes were the tallest, and at 176.7 cm or 5 feet 9.6 inches, they were virtually the same average height as well-nourished, late-twentieth century Americans. The Cheyenne were followed in stature by their neighbors the Arapaho (174.3), the Crow (173.6) and the Sioux (172.8). The men in all of the north-central latitude tribes were taller than Euro-Americans of the same era.”
Rothman:
“It was commonly reported by the first soldiers who went west that Indians had fewer ‘diseases and morbid afflictions…than that of civilized men. Rheumatism is rare, and gout appears to be unknown. No cases of phthisis or jaundice fell under our observation.’… A physician who traveled to Colorado in 1860 noted that ‘among all the Indian tribes inhabiting this tableau, tubercular consumption is almost unknown.’[i]
 
It is important to note that the normal phenotype for humans is to be tall, healthy and robust. As noted in the first paragraph this phenotypic expression very closely matches nutrient availability. Heights among the Native populations reached a zenith in the middle latitudes where food was plentiful and trade routes well established. Buried in the paper is the observation that heights among Americans and Australians of European descent were greater than those of their old world contemporaries. More wild game and grass fed meat and less refined foods. Obviously a good bit more exercise for most as well.

 Regarding the tuberculosis I think it interesting that the natives were either clearing this organism that tends to encyst itself in the lungs thus avoiding the immune system or they were able to push it into a state of dormancy. Clean food, open air and the company of friends and loved ones was a far better medicine both then and now.


[i] Rothman, Living, p. 135.
 
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Robb Wolf is the owner of NorCal Strength & Conditioning, a co-founder of the Performance Menu journal, and author of The Paleolithic Solution. His website is www.robbwolf.com.
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10 Comments
Carrie 1 | 2006-05-04
OMG, I LOVE baby harp seal pate! It's tough to find these days though.
Robert Wolf 2 | 2006-05-05
It's an aquired taste but darn good!
John Wilson 3 | 2006-06-06
I had quite a few Japanese friends in high school - back in the 50's. Most of them were normal height - 5' 9" or so. However, there parents were quite short - I would say 5' 5" or less. For what it's worth
Steve Solano 4 | 2006-07-27
It's refreshing to hear that 5'9" is normal height.
Jill 5 | 2006-11-18
It would be interesting to know how these astonishingly tall northern plains tribes compared to the agricultural tribes (Mandans, Hidatsas, Arikaras, Pawnees) who also lived in the northern grasslands. Since the main components of their diet were corn, squash, and beans--which they traded to the Sioux, et al., for meat--they should be considerably shorter if the underlying theory is correct.
John 6 | 2007-01-12
Typically 6-8 inches taller? I think you need to check your stats. The average Japanese male in Japan is 5'7" tall according to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. I don't think the average Japanese American males is over 6'1. Also, it's not simply the quality of food but the quantity. North Koreans tend to be about 5'5" tall. Starvation makes people short. One more reason to avoid calorie restriction.
Robin 7 | 2008-04-28
Personal Observation: When living in Japan, younger Japanese people were noticably taller that their parents. People in their twenties were three of four inches taller than peopl in their forties, who were three or four inches taller than people in their seventies. My theory is that it has to do with the introduction of more protien and western- style foods.
Michele 8 | 2009-09-10
Regarding the comment on Tuberculosis: There may have been no known cases because the organism was never exposed to the people. For one to become infected with TB, one must first be exposed to an individual with an active case of TB. The exposure must be close contact in poorly ventilated areas and for an extended period of time. So if there was No exposure=No disease. This is why when europeans first arrived in Mexico so many of the Mayans died, they had never been exposed to disease like mumps/measles etc. However, nutritional status does play a part in developing TB. You can be exposed and if the immune system is strong and the body well developed the TB bacillus will be encapsulated and remain dormant until the bodys immune system is weak.
Kevin Simons 9 | 2009-12-03
How much do you think natural selection played into this process? It makes sense to me that shorter stout people would do better in colder environments than taller, lankier ones simple because of a smaller surface area to volume ratio. (Think about standing tall in the cold vs huddling into a ball to stay warm- same concept.) Likewise, in hotter areas such as the plains, a tall lengthy body that expels more heat will be advantageous. I'm sure diet plays a huge part, but this is something to consider.
Robert Wolf 10 | 2009-12-03
Kevin- We see significant natural selection with regards to latitude. Inuit and Neanderthal have a characteristically squattier build, as you alluded. African Exodus (I for get the author) is a great book for exploring this whole concept.
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