Height Differentials Between Eastern and Western-born Asians

By Sheldon

A few weeks ago, I blogged about The New Visibility of Asian Athletes and suggested that Asian parents should allow their children to deviate from studying and piano playing to develop their athleticism. Little did I know, shortly after I would take a summer physiology class and learn in depth about the physical benefits of exercising from a young age, not only on the development of muscle and motor control but also height.

I began to think about my Asian-American friends who I grew up with in the Midwest. Among my closest friends, four are 6’2” and above, one is 5’9” and another is 5’11”. Realizing that the sample size is extremely small, I tried to find more height comparisons among Asians born in different places.

I wonder to myself, what are the chances that all my friends who grew up in the United States are taller than the average height of a Chinese male at 5’7”? I may be subject to biases but I have heard many others echo my hypothesis that Western-born Asians are taller than Eastern-born. With this question in mind, I want to go a step further and examine the reasons for this phenomenon.

The most commonly accepted answer is better nutrition. Scientifically, humans generally experience two total body height growth spurts during the span of their lives. The first growth spurt is usually from birth to age four, and the other is during puberty from age twelve to eighteen. According to my professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Kevin Strang, author of Vanders Human Physiology, during these crucial periods of development, “adequate nutrition and freedom from disease are the primary environmental factors influencing growth.” This means that any shortage of protein, vitamins and fatty acids will interfere with their growth.

Now, relating this all back to the general diets of Asian countries, many children in Asian countries simply do not have the means to obtain necessary nutrients from their daily diet. Simple carbohydrates like rice and instant noodles, a staple for many of these countries, are very limited in nutrition. In China, economic success has not yet significantly impacted much of the rural population resulting in many people not having the money to consume meat daily. In comparison, South Korea’s average male height is 5’8.5”. Could this be correlated with their prosperous economy and their protein-rich Korean barbeque?

I’m not sure, and I don’t want to make a premature hypothesis, but according to Ohio State University Professor Richard Steckel, who studies height trends in the United States, research shows a country’s average height is associated with their per capita income: “Research has shown that average height is significantly associated with a country’s per capita income.” The International Monetary Fund states that the gross domestic product per capita for China and South Korea are $20,591 and $4,382, respectively. Therefore, in this situation, Steckel’s research holds true that the smaller a country’s per capita income is, the shorter its people are.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008, Asian Americans claimed the highest median household income of any racial demographic in the United States and the highest median personal income overall. Now with this new economic success, if Professor Richard Steckel is correct, Western-born Asians should be taller than their Eastern counterparts. Asian American kids are no longer only eating simple carbohydrates like rice or instant noodles and thin slices of meat in stir-fry for lunch. Instead they are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on complex carbohydrate bread and drinking milk.

While nutrition seems to be the key in promoting growth, exercise may be just as important in promoting total body height growth. Professor Kevin Strang states that during energy stressful situations like exercise, the body secretes more growth hormone into the blood. Aside from regulating the proper levels of nutrients in the blood, it also is crucially important in the stimulation of cell division which results in bone lengthening.

So why are these processes important? Children who are given the opportunity to go outside and play will naturally promote growth hormones in their body that can then increase their height In retrospect, I really have begun to appreciate the PE/Gym classes and how important in promoting tall, healthy children. A Korean student at UW-Madison mentioned that when he was in school in Korea, he studied all the time and didn’t have much time for physical activity. Could the academic competitiveness be another reason why many Asian countries are shorter?

All in all, exercise alone cannot be solely correlated with increased height. Many other factors come into play, one of which is genetics. But correct diet during the ages of rapid growth coupled with exercise could be why Western-born Asians tend to be taller and stronger than their Eastern counterparts. Therefore, I urge Asian parents to see physical exercise and outdoor play as an essential part of a child’s health and growth rather than a waste of valuable multiplication table memorization time. Sorry, Tiger Mom Mrs. Amy Chua, I don’t agree with pulling your kids out of gym class for piano or violin lessons because it is a waste of time.

About Sheldon: Sheldon is a Chinese-American born in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently a student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison double majoring in Biology and Chinese. He hopes to one day get his J.D./MPP and work on reshaping US-China foreign policy. Interests include writing, theater arts, and outdoor activities.

[Photo courtesy of MarcelGermain]

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